Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Book Review: The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall

I have ambivalent feelings about polygamy.  Coming from a multi-generational family of Mormons, at least on one side, I have ancestors who participated in polygamy when it was practiced and sanctioned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  In fact, one of my ancestors - Melissa Lott - was one of Joseph Smith's plural wives (though we're descended from her later marriage to Ira Jones Willes).

However, as a product of my modern upbringing, the thought of sharing my husband is repugnant, to say the least.

Then again, I've read impassioned defenses of polygamy written by women who were in polygamous marriages.  They spoke passionately of religious freedom, of their conviction that they were living as God commanded, of the selflessness that they developed from such relationships, of the advantages to such an arrangement.  Some sister wives truly loved and supported each other, raising each others' children and managing the home during illness or absence, which even allowed some women to travel back East to pursue higher degrees.

And on the flip side, I've read angry exposes written by women who felt they had been coerced, taken advantage of, abused or ignored in polygamous relationships.  They tell stories of "favorite" wives given many privileges and benefits, including time with their husband, and wives who were out of favor being denied all but the necessities of life.

And into this vacillating mind comes Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist.  It's the mid-1970s and Golden Richards, with his four wives and twenty-eight children, is struggling on many levels.  His construction business has fallen on hard times and he has been forced to take a job building a brothel in Nevada.  This means, of course, time away from home, not to mention a conflicted soul, since he can't admit to any of his wives or spiritual leaders the truth about what he's building.  The lies are compounded when he recognizes, and begins to act on in very mild ways, an attraction to Huila, a Mexican woman married to the man who hired him to build the house of ill repute.

Relationships are complicated, and polygamous relationships seem to be even more complicated than most.  Right at the beginning of the book - first paragraph - Mr. Udall states, "The life of any polygamist, even when not complicated by lies and secrets and infidelity, is anything but simple."  At one point in the story, Mr. Udall expresses this from the perspective of Rusty, who's about to turn 12: "Like everything else in this family, birthdays were complicated. In this family, you were never free, you couldn't do anything on your own, because there was always somebody who had a dentist's appointment or volleyball practice or Deeanne would have one of her epileptic seizures and there went everybody's Labor Day picnic down the tubes.  It was like they were all connected by the same invisible string, this was how Rusty thought of it, and when one person wanted to do a certain thing or go a certain way, they yanked on all the others, and then another person tried to go in another direction, and so on, and pretty soon they were all tangled up, tied to each other, tripping and flailing, thrashing around like a bunch of monkeys caught in a net."

Polygamy is not an easy lifestyle choice, not for the husband, not for the children, and not for the wives.  Trish, the most introspective of the characters, explains: "The life of a plural wife, she'd found, was a life lived under constant comparison, a life spent wondering."  And later in the book: "This kind of life was for those with the conviction and discipline to obey without question, those who could make themselves believe that their suffering and uncertainty were for a reason yet to be fully revealed. And where, she wondered did that leave her?"

One of the more impressive feats of this novel is that Mr. Udall provides his characters with motivations to remain in this polygamous culture, even to seek it out and refuse to leave when the opportunity presents itself - rationales that the reader can understand and accept, even when we don't agree.  Golden's father explains, "God wants us to live the Principle, mostly because it's a hard thing to do and it makes us better for it."  And later, from the perspective of Trish, Golden's fourth wife: "This, after all, was the basic truth they all chose to live by: that love was no finite commodity.  That it was not subject to the cruel reckoning of addition and subtraction, that to give to one did not necessarily mean to take from another; that the heart, in its infinite capacity--even the confused and cheating heart of the man in front of her, even the paltry thing now clenched and faltering inside her own chest--could open itself to all who would enter, like a house with windows and doors thrown wide, like the heart of God itself, vast and accommodating and holy, a mansion of rooms without number, full of multitudes without end."  There's an uneasy element of truth in those explanations.

Mr. Udall manages to make many of his characters sympathetic.  While Golden often comes across as spineless, taking the path of least resistance at every turn, we also see his deep unhappiness and lack of conviction, and at the end his commitment to change and reclaim the leadership of his family.  Rusty is a confused twelve-year-old boy, desperate to know that someone - anyone - in that family really cares about him, and pays a heavy price for this desire and the failings of the adults around him.  Trish has lost several children to miscarriages and is likewise looking for relief from her pain, but ultimately chooses the imperfect family she has over the possibility of another.

The Lonely Polygamist, is, in turns, funny, moving, poignant.  The backdrop of mid-century atomic testing in the desert looms large as decades later its effects are felt in illnesses and problems several members of the family experience.  What may be most surprising is just how normal and familiar so many of the conflicts and struggles and issues this family faces seem.  All that said, the book did drag for me a bit, especially in the middle.  The chart at the beginning was useful in figuring out which child belonged to which mother, but even at 600 pages, we didn't get to know many of the children at all, which I believe may have been a very intentional choice on Mr. Udall's part, as all of the children - not only Rusty - often seemed to get lost in the shuffle.

This book made me think about the costs others pay for our choices.  It made me think about the definition of family and the complex, sometimes conflicting, desires that affect the course a family will follow.  And it made me commit to pay more attention to those I love.

The Lonely Polygamist
by Brady Udall
ISBN: 9780393062625
Buy it on Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

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