‘Polyg­a­mous Wives Writ­ing Club’: From the di­aries of Mor­mon pi­o­neer women

Serve Daily - - BUILDING COMMUNITY - By Deb­bie Bal­zotti

Here’s a con­tro­ver­sial book choice that will perk up your book club! As one mem­ber of our group put it, “Read­ing ‘The Polyg­a­mous Wives Writ­ing Club’ is like watch­ing a train wreck - fas­ci­nat­ing, painful and al­most un­be­liev­able. Lo­cal au­thor Paula Kelly Har­line spent sev­eral years col­lect­ing and read­ing the di­aries and au­to­bi­ogra­phies of 29 women who lived in Utah and be­came polyg­a­mous wives be­tween 1847 and 1890. They were not fa­mous women, not mar­ried to prom­i­nent church lead­ers, and re­mained faith­ful mem­bers of The Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter-day Saints de­spite hard­ship and per­se­cu­tion.

“My pri­mary mo­ti­va­tion for writ­ing this book has al­ways been to share the 29 polyg­a­mous wives’ sto­ries,” Har­line re­sponded when asked why she wrote the book.

She felt that their re­ac­tions to what was go­ing on in their lives were sim­i­lar to how women to­day would feel and read­ers could re­late to them and ad­mire them for their faith­ful­ness. “Their sto­ries res­onated with me be­cause I felt that, for the most part, they re­acted to their sit­u­a­tions the way I might have – the polyg­a­mous wives seemed so hu­man and wom­anly and sane,” she said.

Har­line quotes ex­ten­sively from the women’s writ­ings as she tells their sto­ries. Short quotes are wo­ven into longer sen­tences to keep the nar­ra­tive flow­ing be­tween in­di­vid­ual sto­ries.

Each chap­ter links women who could have met each other due to the lo­ca­tion of their home and trav­els. For ex­am­ple, chap­ter four, ti­tled “It is a Heart His­tory,” in­cludes the sto­ries of Mary Jane Tan­ner, El­iz­a­beth MacDon­ald and Eu­nice Ste­wart. They were all first wives living in Provo, and two of them lived in Payson at the same time be­fore mov­ing to Provo so their lives prob­a­bly crossed.

There were a few sur­prises for me in the book. While it was true that many polyg­a­mous wives were young, men of­ten mar­ried older women as their sec­ond or third wife. The fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties of sup­port­ing mul­ti­ple wives and sev­eral chil­dren usu­ally re­quired wives to con­trib­ute by sewing, laun­der­ing, farm­ing, teach­ing and even run­ning the lo­cal post of­fice.

And I was very cu­ri­ous about what hap­pened to polyg­a­mous wives af­ter the 1890 Man­i­festo ended polygamy and de­clared that a man could only live with his first wife. What did they do with wife num­ber two, or three or four? Fam­i­lies who had not fled to Mex­ico or Canada now had to sep­a­rate and obey the law of monogamy or qui­etly con­tinue in dis­obe­di­ence. Not all hus­bands were able or will­ing to sup­port the ad­di­tional house­holds cre­ated by sep­a­ra­tion. Polyg­a­mous wives were now sub­ject to ridicule by their Mor­mon neigh­bors and fre­quently changed their names and hid their past.

I highly rec­om­mend read­ing “The Polyg­a­mous Wives Writ­ing Club.” I ap­pre­ci­ated hear­ing their sto­ries told us­ing many of their own words and I think I have a bet­ter idea of how dif­fi­cult it was for th­ese women and many oth­ers who chose to live as polyg­a­mous wives.

The book is avail­able from De­seret Book or on­line from the pub­lisher Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity Press at www.oup.com or www.ama­zon.com.

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