I'm from Utah. And I'm a Mormon. And that means when I meet someone who's never met a Utah Mormon before, if they're brave enough, they'll frequently ask me how many wives I have. It happened just two weeks ago when I was out of town at a conference, and I assume I'll be answering that question at least a hundred more times during my life.
For the record, only one wife. And she's very patient with all the toys and books and movies that I bring into our lives. Mormons haven't been polygamists since 1890, when the leadership of the LDS Church (Mormon Church) decided it was more expedient to follow the law of the land than to continue losing property, civil rights, and people to the federal government's laws regarding marriage. So although I'm sure I had polygamous ancestors, that was more than a century ago, and I don't think about it often.
Even though the rank-and-file Mormons haven't been polygamists in 120 years, there are still dozens of "fundamentalist" sects in Utah, Idaho, Arizona, and Montana, with thousands of adherents. A dear friend of our family broke away from one of those groups with some difficulty about ten years ago, and my in-laws have taken her under their wing as another daughter. It's not easy to get out, and the stories of those who do are fascinating and frightening. More recently, the HBO series Big Love (I've seen the first two seasons, and enjoyed it--I'll get caught up with the Hendricksons eventually) has mined polygamy for dramatic material, and I think they've done a fair job of representing many of the issues at hand.
So when I saw The Lonely Polygamist on the "must read" list in Entertainment Weekly, I had to pick it up. Brady Udall, an Idaho resident who has Mormon roots of his own, has written a 600 page novel about modern polygamy that's fascinating, disturbing, hilarious, and heartbreaking. Set in Southern Utah and Nevada in the 1970's, the polygamist in question is Golden Richards. He's 47 years old, a contractor, and has four wives: Beverly, Nola, Rose-of-Sharon, and Trish. He's also got 28 children, all under the age of 18. A family tree at the beginning of the book is a handy reference. Thankfully, Udall chooses to focus on Golden, Beverly, Trish, and a few of the children, while acknowledging the chaos that reigns throughout Golden's life, which is spinning out of control.
To put it as simply as possible: this is the story of a polygamist who has an affair. But there is much more to it than that, of course; the life of any polygamist, even when not complicated by lies and infidelity, is anything but simple.
These opening sentences set up the plot for the next six hundred pages. Golden Richards, while away on business, falls for another woman. And even though he returns home to his three houses and four wives every weekend, his heart is no longer with them. This part of the story was the most heartbreaking, but it also rang true. Golden spends his time with his wives hiding from them, constantly wondering where they're at, if they're plotting against him, and ways he can escape. For their part, the wives spend their time pining for him, wishing he'd grow a pair, and wondering how they got involved in this relationship to begin with. The children are nearly free-range, without a father around, and with mothers overwhelmed by sheer numbers. One house is ruled by Beverly, the first wife, with an iron fist. In marked contrast, the kids seem to run Nola and Rose-of-Sharon's house, and Trish's house is empty...and that emptiness is killing her.
The only child we really get to know is Rusty, an 11 year old who's a little overweight, who misses his dad, and tends to act differently than the other kids. He fantasizes about one of his aunts, he reads underlined passages in trashy novels, and sometimes he talks like a robot. He's an interesting, unique kid...who knows he's being stifled in this rural, inbred environment.
Udall makes good use of the setting in the Southwest and the time period, and although most of Golden's struggles are ones that any man goes through, they're honed to a particular point because of the numbers of wives and children, and the unique situation that he has put himself into. By the end of the novel, my own life, which sometimes seems painful or complicated, seemed like a cakewalk compared to the life of Golden Richards. Truthfully, some of the passages had me wondering if my own ancestors went through similar struggles, but more often than not, I was thinking about my own relationship with my wife and sons and wondering how I can improve those relationships.
This was a good read, very entertaining, and sometimes shocking. There is some sexual content and language that would make it for adult audiences, but the themes of infidelity and adult relationships would do that anyway. Although it has its depressing moments, ultimately there are positive themes that made this a book worth reading. If you're looking for a book that will expand your worldview and make you a little more thankful for what you've got at home, check out The Lonely Polygamist.