The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff


Just how many wives does one guy need?  When it came to Brigham Young, one of the “founding fathers” of the Mormon youngchurch, the answer was never very clear, at least according to David Ebershoff’s novel, The 19th Wife.  Perhaps, more accurately, Brigham Young was clear on the number of wives he had, but no one else was because the number changed so frequently depending on how many were active wives.  As one of the characters in the novel notes, it is likely he had 52-55, but “removed from the total tally were the wives who had died, who were barren, or whom Brigham no longer had sexual relations with.”  (Photo of Brigham Young, courtesy of PBS)

In Ebershoff’s 2008 novel, the title The 19th Wife refers to Ann Eliza Young, one of Brigham’s wives and a staunch opponent of polygamy, and to BeckyLyn Scott, the 19th wife of a modern polygamist from a fundamentalist sect of “First Saints” who live in Mesadale, Utah.  Mr. Scott turned up shot to death after leaving a note indicting BeckyLyn on a chatroom:

Manofthehouse2004:  hang on

DesertMissy:  phone?

Manofthehouse2004:  no my wife

DesertMissy:  which one?

Manofthehouse2004:  #19

Enter Jordan, BeckyLyn’s gay son, who was forcibly removed from Mesadale by the Prophet’s guard at the age of 14 and told to make his own way in the world.  Over the course of the novel, Jordan teams up with another homeless Mesadale teen, meets a great guy, tries to clear his mother’s name and learns more about his father than he ever wanted to know.

Ebershoff takes reams of historical information about the real Brigham and Ann Eliza Young and meshes these into a head-spinning variety of fictional accounts:  private journals, published books, correspondence, research papers, deposition testimony, newspaper articles. Without ever actually interweaving the narratives, the two segments of the book complement and comment upon one another.  The New York Times’s review of the book said, “In a less talented writer’s hands, The 19th Wife could have turned into a Rube Goldberg contraption. But in the end the multiplicity of perspectives serves to broaden Ebershoff’s depiction not only of polygamy, but also of the people whose lives it informs. And this gives his novel a rare sense of moral urgency.”  Frankly, as I read the book myself, I was astounded at the different voices Ebershoff created and his ability to fictionalize so many different aspects of history and combine them with a significant and compelling modern story.


One of Ebershoff’s resources was Ann Eliza’s own book, Wife Number 19.

Jordan’s quest to clear his mother’s name of course returns him to his Mesadale roots, where he must confront the demons of his past.  It’s a great story.  But my favorite part of the novel, I believe, other than Jordan’s dog Elektra who is one hoot after another, is Jordan’s romance with Tom.  Jordan, understandably, is a hard case.  After what he expects to be a one-night stand with Tom, Tom wakes him to attend church with him on Sunday morning.  They drive for two hours to a church in Las Vegas which welcomed everyone:  “the blind dyke; the six-foot-four inch tranny; the hairy bear ravaged by HIV; this kid, Lawrence.”  And after a sermon in which the pastor simply read children’s definitions of love — they give you the last bite of their eye cream and you give them yours, when my doggy licks my face even though I’ve left her outside all day long — Jordan finds his feelings growing, almost against his will.

I don’t know about you, but I hate the phrase nicest guy in the world.  As in, I just met the nicest guy in the world.  As if.  But now it seemed to true.

It’s a stark contrast between Jordan and Tom’s sweet love story and the snakes’ nest of relationships that grew out of both the 19th century and 21st century polygamy as depicted in The 19th Wife.   

This is a dense, long, historically fascinating novel.  Should your book club choose to read it, make sure that you do so with plenty of time devoted to the reading and the discussing.  And enjoy!


The Church of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) does not allow alcohol, tea, coffee (or piercings or immodest dress) — all of which pretty much would put my book club at a loss for everything.  The novel is a little spare on food details, but there is a mention of donuts at the Las Vegas church service, and a fairly icky turkey buffet served by the pound.  But the LDS did bring bees and honey west with them when they came to Utah and Ann Eliza Young’s former home was called the Beehive House.  So honey would be a good addition.  I also found a website that lists Utah’s favorite foods,, chief among them apparently is green jello.  Why?  I have no idea.  But my grandmother has a wonderful green jello recipe.


Green Jello Salad

1 large carton Cool Whip

1 small carton small curd cottage cheese

1 small can crushed pineapple, drained

1 large package green jello, dry.  Do not add water.

Beat all ingredients except Cool Whip.  Fold in Cool Whip.  Coconut and nuts can be added if desired.  Pour into large flat dish and refrigerate.

Pastrami Burgers (see article above)

French fries with fry sauce

Fry Sauce is the state condiment of Utah, I take it.  Here’s a recipe from

  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/2 cup ketchup (roughly a 2 to 1 ratio)
  • 1/2 tsp onion powder
  • 3 to 4 teaspoons pickle juice (add one teaspoon at a time & check for taste)
  • Mix all ingredients together in a bowl and serve with fries.

Vanilla Ice Cream with Honey


This may be the easiest music suggestion ever.  The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has a website that has a 24/7 live streaming service.


David Ebershoff’s novel The 19th Wife has already been adapted to film by the Lifetime Movie Network.  It will be shown next on April 26, 2015, at 6 a.m.  Set your DVRs!


Happy Reading!