At the tender age of 19, a sister missionary handed me a Book of Mormon and challenged me to read it. The only thing I’d ever heard about the Mormons is that they were somehow connected with polygamy. My interest was piqued. I figured I could find out more by reading this book that they had given me — but though I read it straight through in the next 3 days, it took me longer than that before I discovered any evidence of polygamy! Brady Udall’s new novel “The Lonely Polygamist” promises in the first sentence: “This is a story of a polygamist who has an affair.” But if you’re looking for the affair, you’ll find yourself in the same situation I was at age 19. That really isn’t what the book is all about. Udall explains the curiosity most people have about polygamy by saying, “Why the obsession? It has to do with sex, of course. Everything we are obsessed about has something to do with sex, and polygamy is no exception. But I think there may be more to it than that.” And his novel doesn’t rely upon sex or a polygamist’s affair to drive the story. It’s not a sensational expose, but rather a treatment of human nature, of family, of transcending everyday life.
I was captivated by this 550-page novel, and fascinated by how relevant it is to readers of all backgrounds. The story is told from the points of view of three main characters: Golden Richards, the convert to Mormon fundamentalism; Trish, one of his wives; and the preadolescent Rusty, one of Golden’s twenty-eight children. If you’re of a certain age and a close reader, you’ll be able to place the time period in which it is set by the subtle cultural clues: a reference to Starsky and Hutch, a Sears Roebuck catalog, Postum, and a 1963 Cadillac with only 4,000 miles on it. That Golden is presented as an apostle of a tiny polygamist sect in rural Utah doesn’t keep him from his true character of all-American everyman. He has four wives, but some of the same marital challenges which are familiar to us all. His twenty-eight children present him with the same provocations as my eight, and probably your four, and my neighbor’s two. The fact that Udall is so skilled at probing the universalities of life gives his readers an opportunity to ponder our own life journeys as we enter into what we might otherwise consider the divergent spheres of the husband, wife, and child of a polygamous family.
Consider, for example, how much the description of a church service Golden attended connected not only to fundamentalist Mormons, but to mainstream Latter-day Saints as well as the rural roots of American Protestant religion. In a sudden burst of emotion occasioned by the recent death of his mother and the preachings of “Uncle Chick,” Golden understands “that he is a changed person; his old self, that tattered shitty thing he never knew he so much despised, has been tossed aside. Now Uncle Chick is finishing his testimony, affirming his faith in the gospel, in the saving Principle they hold so dear, and just before he finishes he smiles, as if apologizing for all the dramatics, and says, ‘Remember, brothers and sisters, God loves you,’ and Golden knows it is true.” Then the announcement is made for a social to be held after the meeting with Sister Maxine’s famous walnut brownies. The congregations sings a hymn, the words of which have never struck him quite as they do at that moment, and afterward the congregation of “red-cheeked children” and “smelly old farmers” and “hard-faced women” evokes every Church social I have ever attended.
In Golden’s triple-homed household, you’ll find little touches you may recognize from your own families; whether it be the notes one wife leaves in strategic places: “Turn off Light When Not in Use,” or efforts to unclog a toilet, or an idiosyncratic pet. So when it comes to both the dysfunctionality the Richards’ experience and the strengths they lend each other, you’ll realize that these things have part and parcel in all of our lives. You’ll nod when Golden pulls into his driveway under still-lit Christmas lights feeling that just maybe everything will be ALL RIGHT — and then you’ll cry when death and tragedy prove that nothing is OK, there is no explanation that suffices, and one has to find a way to go on.
For those readers who can’t stem the craving for a peek into the polygamous lifestyle, don’t worry, you’ll get your fix. There’s a generous helping of all the pathos and loneliness the sharing of a husband evokes for a woman, as well of the comforts of having loyal sister wives when emergencies present themselves. I love the scene where Trish has just delivered a stillborn baby and Golden won’t look at him. Her sister-wife Beverly makes Golden hold the baby and sing him a lullaby. Then he is sent off to make arrangements while the four wives weep and admire the baby and hold hands and pray. This scene is as beautiful as another is disturbing: Rose has to work up the courage to ask Trish if she will forego her night with Golden so he can attend a daughter’s high school band concert.
“He hasn’t been in over two weeks,” Trish whispered, even though now that the dryer had rattled into silence her words carried easily into every part of the room. “I’ve seen him twice in the past month. If I don’t see him tonight, who knows how long it will be, you understand? Rose? I’m beginning to think he won’t even recognize me anymore.”
She laughed — a pathetic attempt to lighten the mood — but Rose only nodded, and Trish realized that both her eyes were now leaking tears. Unable to speak or make a gesture of condolence or regret, she sat in the sunken chair, a black-hearted villain in her bank-robber’s mask, her shameful features hidden from view. Nola, whose scissors had been poised above her customer’s springy hair during the entire exchange, sighed and resumed her snick snick snick. Rose eased her hands from Trish’s grip and gently dried her hair with a towel.
She did not wait for Rose to comb out her tangled hair, did not wait for her turn in Nola’s chair. A bitterness had risen in her throat, sudden and hot — that she should have to feel guilty for wanting to be a participant in her own life, that she should be ashamed of wanting to spend a few hours with her own husband! — and she knew she should leave immediately… She stepped out into the bright day, the sidewalk scorching white beneath her feet, the sky a pale panel of blue over her head, and walked slowly at first, her hair wet and wild, her face still covered with the handkerchief, and then began to run, making a break for it like the outlaw she was.
And then there are the comic moments in plural marriage, as when Golden gets a piece of gum stuck in the hair of a very personal spot! You’ll have to read the book to hear about that one. Oh yes, Brady Udall has captured life in polygamy as if he has lived it himself.
I think that if — back when I was a 19-year-old born-again Christian — someone had given me a synopsis of the contents of the Book of Mormon, that I would have declined to read it. And perhaps if someone had divulged the story line of “The Lonely Polygamist” to me before I read it I might have considered it too depressing, too emotionally difficult to engage. But interestingly enough, the Book of Mormon has taken me on an exciting and life-changing faith journey. And Udall’s novel has provided surprising opportunities as well. Its flawed and sometimes dysfunctional characters have paradoxically given me a measure of hope.