Thursday, May 21, 2009

Guest Post: David Ebershoff on The 19th Wife

Since the initial publication of The 19th Wife last August, I have received hundreds of emails from readers eager to share with me an interesting and often poignant story about their own connection to American polygamy. Typically these stories are about Pioneer ancestors who, in the 19th century, embraced the practice of plural marriage as part of their belief. I have heard the story of the great-great-great grandmother who was a 12th wife and I have heard the story of the great-great aunt who was a 6th wife and I have heard from many, many direct descendants of Brigham Young, which is not wholly surprising given that he had 57 children. I’m always happy to receive these emails because with each story told our understanding of American polygamy grows more complex and rich.

But the most unsettling emails, and the ones I both dread and appreciate the most, are those from people who know about polygamy today. While writing The 19th Wife I spoke with a number of people who told me about their experiences as either a plural wife or as a child of a polygamous household. (It’s worth pointing out that not a single man with plural wives was willing to speak to me.) Their stories inform the contemporary portion of the novel, Jordan’s story. It is from these generous people that I learned how a polygamous household works, how the dynamics among the sister wives play out, and how children go about their day, from rising early to get in line for breakfast to begging their fathers for a minute of affection.

But since the book has appeared, I have met via the Internet even more people from polygamous families – plural wives and children of polygamy. Their emails often begin by telling me that The 19th Wife more or less reflects their lives and the world they come from. Although this is artistically gratifying it also upsets me because there is a part of me that wishes I had gotten it all wrong and that in fact such abuse, deprivation, and degradation do not exist. Alas, fiction can be true.

About two months ago I received an email from a woman who grew up in a polygamous community similar to Mesadale, the fictional community Jordan is from in the book. She said that she had read the novel and that the world I described is an accurate depiction of the community she was born into and had lived in as plural wife until 2003. But the real reason she was writing me was more harrowing: One day her younger brother, a boy in his late teens, was found dead under mysterious circumstances. The woman felt certain that her brother had been murdered although she did not know by whom or why. Fearing for her own life, she fled, leaving behind her family and friends – everyone she knew and loved. Now, six years later she was writing me because she knew I had been back to this world and that I had some contacts within. As an apostate, she no longer had any communication with her loved ones and she was writing to me to ask if I could tell her about the people she missed and feared for. She concluded by telling me that she knew some day soon she would have to return to this world to find out the truth about her brother’s death and to seek justice.

Being a writer in 2009 means I can communicate instantly and directly with readers. I never know what will be in my inbox in the morning: a salutation from Salt Lake, a greeting from Galveston, or a cry for help from a woman who has just read about herself in my novel. Writing a book is a lonely act: for a few years I was at my desk writing The 19th Wife, alone except for my dog, Elektra, who is always at my feet. I often wondered who might read the book and how it would be perceived. With each email, I have a sense of how the book sits in someone’s lap and someone’s life. I’m grateful to everyone who has sought me out to share something of themselves with me, whether the story is sad or happy or, as often is the case, something in between.

I hope to hear from many more readers. Don’t be shy! You can reach me at

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews
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Anonymous said...

What a powerful post! Thank you for sharing...I have got to read this book. :)

Molly said...

Thank you, Becky. Very poignant.

Laura H said...

My sister read this book(and loved it) so I called and read her this post. She liked it alot. Thanks from her.

Zibilee said...

Great guest post. It is incredibly sad that this book mirrors real lives so accurately,but it must feel so rewarding for the author to hear that his story has touched so many people from this community.