Hrdlitschka, Shelley. 2008. Sister Wife.
I am consumed with impure thoughts. My head is swirling with stories that would give the Prophet heart failure if he knew of them. I fear that I am destined for eternal damnation. I haven't always been like this. The stories started when Taviana came to Unity. she wasn't born and raised here like the rest of us, but was found on the outside, living on the streets, doing unspeakable things. Jacob, an elder, wanted to help her, so he brought her to us, and she was so grateful that she's worked hard to learn the rules of our faith. Now she understands and appreciates that obedience is the only path to Heaven, but sometimes she slips up, and when we're working side by side, she tells me stories she heard as a little girl. I know that the only stories I need to hear are ones that will keep my mind pure, and those ones are all contained in the sacred book so I shouldn't listen to Taviana. But the way she tells them! She puts on voices, and sometimes she even acts them out. I have to listen, and before you know it I hear myself begging for another one. Right now I'm filled with remorse just thinking about my part in this activity, but I can't seem to help myself. Today I'm reminded of the story she told a few weeks ago, the one of the boy named the Pied Piper. He was some sort of gypsy who wandered into town playing a flute. The music appeared to cast a spell on the children, and they followed him everywhere. When she told the story, I imagined that the Pied Piper looked just like Jon, tall and slim, with wind-tousled hair. He'd have soft brown eyes that looked right into your soul, and he wasn't a show off like the other boys. I don't have a flute, but I have a flock of small children following me from the school to the playground near the river, where I mind them until it's time to start with the supper chores...(1-2)Sister Wife has multiple narrators--a teen girl, Celeste, on the verge of her fifteenth birthday which means that the Prophet will soon reveal which man is destined to become her husband; Taviana, a young teen who was rescued by one of the men in the community, she is now living with Celeste's family; Nanette, Celeste's younger sister, is dreaming of the day when she'll be assigned to marry one of the men. In fact, she's dreaming of one man in particular, Jacob, the man who first rescued Taviana, no matter that she'd just be wife number six or seven. Each narrator presents an insider's look at a polygamous community.
Celeste is dreading the idea of becoming a plural wife...for that matter...she is dreading the idea of marriage in general. Marriage means several things within the community: wives are assigned to men, the men are always older--significantly older than the teen brides, there are always plural wives within each household, marriage is for breeding--breed your way into heaven--a baby a year for all your childbearing years. Marriage brings with it work--the housekeeping, the cooking, the cleaning, the tending children. No wonder Celeste is a bit intimidated by the prospect. Celeste is dreaming of love. She is attracted by the idea of falling in love with a boy of her own choosing. Falling in love with a boy--not a man--someone her own age.
Taviana doesn't know whether she'll ever be marriage material or not. She was not born into this faith, into this community. And she wasn't trained up properly. She's seen and done it all. Having even worked as a prostitute on the street. Will the Prophet ever think she'd make a man a fit wife? No, Taviana feels that she won't be with this community forever. She'll one day be out in the world again. She doesn't miss her former life--though sometimes she wishes she could go on the internet or watch television or read a book--too many bad memories. But she knows this reprieve is temporary in all likelihood.
Nanette. Out of all the narrators perhaps I pity Nanette the most. Here is a girl--around the age of twelve or thirteen--who is idealizing marriage. Maybe that isn't the strange part. But it's who she's choosing to idealize that is a bit icky. Jacob, as far as they come, is a good man. He's a believer. He appears to treat his wives and his children kindly. That's not to say there is no discipline or structure, but he's not as tyrannical as he could be. Jacob seems to have picked Nanette out of the crowd. Though she is several years away from marriage, he seems to have taken a liking to her. He speaks with her at every opportunity. He hints in a veiled-not-so-veiled way that he wishes she could be his wife now.
Sister Wife is an excellent book, a fascinating book, a look at an oppressed culture. Oppressed in that the children are given no choices. To be in the faith means certain things--for girls it means being obedient and diligent. Girls are to obey their father, work hard and respect their mother(s), tend to the house, tend to the younger children, etc. When they reach a certain age--fourteen or fifteen--they are assigned husbands. Again no choice. No choice who to marry--or when to marry. But the community is oppressive to boys as well. The boys aren't allowed to develop relationships with girls. Aren't allowed to marry when they're young. The teen girls are for the older men, not the younger. Is it any wonder that there are a lot of boys running away from the community, choosing to be shunned and to become a part of the world at large. We see a glimpse of this in Sister Wife as we follow Jon to the city and to the refuge he finds there with a woman--a former sister wife herself--who seeks to help those leaving the community adjust to the modern world, to society.
The book is packed with ethical implications. It's a thoughtful and thought-provoking novel. It's not that the book seeks to demonize this fictional community, all the characters are human--flawed, imperfect.
© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews