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