In the meantime, here are a few of my thoughts about the book.
Historical fiction has become one of my favorite genres of late. I especially like it when the lines are blurred between fiction and fact and when I learn something about the people, place, politics and everyday life of the time period (I'm one of those readers David referred to who had my browser open to Google as I read). For these criteria, The 19th Wife comes through brilliantly. I would have been completely satisfied if the book had stayed in the 19th century. Not that I didn't enjoy the contemporary mystery, but the story of Ann Eliza could stand on its own with no problem.
Ann Eliza's story is so interesting and Ebershoff does a great job of telling the facts of it and of fictionalizing it. Here's a woman who stood up to the powerful Mormons, and particularly their spiritual and political leader, Brigham Young, in a time when women didn't have much, if any, public or political power - especially Mormon women. The subject of polygamy was unpopular in mainstream America, and Ann Eliza was able to win the sympathy of large groups of people - and the ears of President Grant and Congress - as she traveled around the country telling her story. I learned a lot about the history of the Mormon religion and migration, about the prophets Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and the roots of polygamy in the US.
The contemporary narrative could also stand alone, and that would be my preference. I think the characters could be developed more thoroughly in this narrative if it was a stand-alone story. I liked Jordan and thought him well drawn. He was compassionate and likeable and I got the feeling his life was going to turn out all right. Johnny seemed more like a vehicle for a slew of obnoxious teen dialogue thrown in to shake up the story. I found him unbelievable, especially since he was just 12, had been raised in an isolated community and he'd been away from the compound just six months, yet he had such a command of mainstream teen attitude (not in a good way). I chalked it up to survival bravado, but then didn't feel he added anything to the story. Perhaps he was the ghost of Jordan's past.
I rated this book 4 stars out of 5. A very enjoyable read.
In an earlier post I wrote about my Mormon ancestors making the journey to Utah. This was my maternal grandfather's family. I dug a little deeper and discovered that my maternal grandmother's father John E. Hansen, also a Mormon, was the editor of the Deseret News, the mouthpiece for the Mormon Church and defender of Brigham Young during the legal battle with Ann Eliza.
I found a phenomenal website, a gold mine of history that gives you access to hundreds of newspapers' digitalized archives - it's like having a huge library of microfilm at your fingertips. I was hoping to find the motherlode, perhaps an editorial written by my great grandfather about the case, but I discovered that his stint at the newspaper began after the case was settled. (I admit to getting quite distracted by this site!) I found a number of articles about Ann Eliza and Brigham Young, including these (possible spoilers in articles):
From The Deseret News, 09-02-1874:
From The Deseret News, 11-17-1875, part of an article titled "The Press on Boremanism and Other Things." Click on image for a clear read.
Stay tuned for more on The 19th Wife later today.