Every once in a while, I read a decidedly-unchristian book that makes me think about the Bible in a different way, something that makes me say, “Maybe that’s why so-and-so acted that way!” It doesn’t have to talk about the Bible or have biblical allusions; but it reveals a truth about human character and relationships through fiction in a way that, for me, scholarly works don’t.
The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff, was like that. Yes, you read that correctly: the 19th wife.
As in, there are eighteen other women cast in the role of wife to one husband.
As in, a 19-to-1 ratio of wives-to-husband.
As in, polygamy.
It’s part modern-day murder mystery and part historical tale of one of the many wives of Brigham Young.
As the dual timeline unfolds, we read about Jordan, a young gay man who has been cast out from the “Firsts”, a secluded group of polygamists living in Utah under the control of a Warren Jeffs-like leader. (The “Firsts” are First Church of the Latter Day Saints, which split from the official Mormon church a long time ago.) He returns when his mother, the 19th wife of his father, is accused of murdering her husband. She convinces him that she’s innocent; reluctantly, he, a new lover, and another stray ex-First teen begin investigating the murder.
Mixed into the story is the fictionalized true story of Ann Eliza Young, the most famous of Young’s wives; she escaped Young, tried to sue for alimony, and toured the country speaking about the evils of polygamy. (She is a controversial figure in the LDS church and was/is considered an apostate.) Through her efforts and her memoirs, she helped convince national leaders that they couldn’t turn a blind eye to the issue of multiple wives. Previously, there had been a “what happens in Utah, stays in Utah” mentality, but Young’s scathing memoirs showed them that the practice of polygamy actually hurts the people involved.
Which is where my ah-ha! moment occurred.
I’ve read the Bible through multiple times in my life, and while I always understood that the patriarchs’ polygamy wasn’t good and led to big-time problems in their lives, I didn’t quite understand the family dynamics.
Why couldn’t Sarah and Hagar get along? Why’d Ishmael have it out for Isaac? And Rachel and Leah, fighting over Jacob and who got to have sex with him and who got pregnant by him the most times? C’mon, ladies, couldn’t you just get along? You’re both in the same situation, dealing with the same guy!
Now I understood.
Ann Eliza Young calls polygamy “soulless”; it destroys the souls of those involved. Her own father took multiple wives and paid for it, both literally (the wives and children drained his finances) and figuratively (he despises his own lustful weaknesses and how his relationship with his first, beloved wife is destroyed by the competing demands of wives numbers two through five).
Jordan tells about his sisters and half-sisters and other girls, how they were abused by fathers and married off to men many years older. He tells about the boys and young men who were often cast out from the Firsts because they were a threat to the older men: they were competition as sexual partners for the girls.
(That’s why he was expelled from the community: he was caught holding the hand of his half-sister, not as a sexual or romantic gesture but as an expression of companionship.)
The wives form factions: some follow one dominant wife, others follow another. They’re jealous; they bicker; they despise whoever is the wife after them and are ignored by the previous wives. Ones who have more children tend to have more clout; others are considered lesser. The childless wives might be divorced.
Was this the dynamic in Jacob’s household?
2 wives+ 2 concubines + 1 husband = 13+ children.
No wonder Rachel and Leah bargained over who got to sleep with Jacob.
The “Firsts” husbands keep charts (Jordan calls them f*** charts) to keep track of how much time they spend with each wife and what each wife likes during their “intimate” moments. (How intimate it can be when she has to share her sex partner with many other women?) She’s become an object of sexual lust, a possession that he may or may not like; she’s little more than an unpaid prostitute.
I had to wonder about King David and his many wives. When he got Bathsheba pregnant and then killed her husband, I can’t imagine that she was overjoyed at getting to be part of the royal harem.
To go from the wife of one man, Uriah the Hittite, to being just one of David’s many wives was hardly moving up the social ladder. She wouldn’t be the chief wife, she would be resented by the other wives, and most importantly, she lost an honorable husband who loved her and, from what I can tell, loved only her. She lost the intimacy that is only possible between two people. I doubt that she wanted any of this to happen. Yet she had no power to stop the king from taking what he wanted: her.
The Bible doesn’t tell us all of these emotional details. Sometimes it’s easy to skim over a familiar text or approach it in an emotionless way that doesn’t imagine the depth of human emotions. But doing that makes us lose the human aspect of these stories.
That’s why I appreciated Ebershoff’s book so much. It wasn’t just a well-written novel. It pointed things out about human nature (and in particular, the nature of relationships when polygamy is allowed) that I could relate to the people of the Bible. It wasn’t spiritually inspired by any means, but it illuminated an area that I hadn’t quite understood before.
How about you? Have you ever had a novel or short story that revealed something about human nature to you?