Since all the cool kids on Xanga were reading The 19th Wife and my daughter has a weird obsession with Mormons, I picked the book up too. It’s a fictionalized account of some incidents in Mormon history, including the exile from Ohio and several other states, the settlement in Utah, and the apostasy of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Mormon Prophet II, Brigham Young. She ditched the big guy and became an advocate for the abolition of polygamy. Intertwined with all that is a modern day murder mystery in which a guy in a polygamous offshoot of the no-longer-polygamous Mormons is murdered, apparently by his 19th wife. Clever, eh?
The history of Mormon polygamy goes like this. [Apologies to my Mormon friends for what follows. Rest assured my views of other religions are not any more flattering.] A charlatan with buckets of snake oil invented a new religion, complete with mystical happenings, revelations, golden plates, and angels. Impressed by his powers of deception, people followed him. (Joseph Smith’s method was successfully replicated by L. Ron Hubbard when he invented Scientology many years later.) Among other advantages, being the Prophet to whom God allegedly spoke directly gave Joseph the ability to do whatever-the-heck he wanted with full justification. And he wanted to screw young women. Lots of young women. So “God” told him that he should marry many young women, and not being a selfish guy, he wanted other men to share in the bounty. Not only was it okay to marry more than one woman, God demanded it.
After Joseph was murdered by a mob that disapproved of his version of religion, the Prophet job went to Brigham Young, a brilliant and talented man who happily screwed many young women as well, while insisting that other men do the same. That the system sucked for women did not concern him, nor did he care that men who were not so wealthy and powerful struggled mightily to support multiple women and the many resulting children. According to the novel, Brigham coerced Ann Eliza into marrying him by destroying her brother’s life and promising to undo the damage if she went along with it, but I don’t know if that’s how it went down. Regardless, she left him, sued for divorce and alimony, and hit the road to deliver lectures to the non-Mormon public about the evils of polygamy.
The US government became increasingly testy with the Mormons for their defiance of the law. Shortly after Brigham’s death, Prophet III got new instructions from God: no more polygamy! Even though the Prophets had been selling what they called “celestial marriage” as the ticket to heaven for many years, Prophet III reversed the rule. Understandably, some of the faithful viewed this as kowtowing to the gentile government forces. Which, of course, it was. So they split off from the church and started their own in a remote desert community. It’s still there.
The latter-day polygamists practice welfare fraud to support their habits. Church elders (male only, of course) marry many women and produce dozens of children. Under the law, they are only married to their first wives, so all the others are “single mothers.” They live in poverty and collect government benefits. The problem is, some of those children are male, and the men don’t want a bunch of young bucks around competing with the Elders for the teenaged girls. So a lot of those boys are simply expelled when they are young teens. Dropped off on the highway and left to fend for themselves. They’re called Lost Boys. This is not fiction.
So, back to the book. A Lost Boy returns to polygamy-land to save his mother, who has been accused of murdering her husband. Why he would bother is unclear to me, since this woman abandoned him on the highway. But he’s an engaging protagonist and I enjoyed following the trail with him. I always like books that give me a look at life within American sub-cultures.
Here’s a side note. Big news around here is that the University of Washington just hired a new president, Michael Young, who is a practicing Mormon and a direct descendent of Brigham himself. (Brigham must have many direct descendents running around.) Here in latte-land we are inclined to be suspicious of religious folk, and it seems odd that a left-leaning school in a left-leaning city should have a Mormon president. But hey, the United States may have a Mormon president in the not-too-distant future. And since Mr. Romney is significantly less freaky than some of the regular old Christians making noise about the presidency, I say run, Mitt, run.