Polygamy as Potboiler

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Keep Sweet is one of several recent novels that imagine life in fundamentalist Mormon communities where polyamory and forced unions are the norm. The drama by Michele Dominguez Greene unfolds on a Utah compound called Pineridge where a girl named Alva Jane lives with her father, his seven wives, and her 28 siblings. “Keep sweet” is one of the rules the girls are instructed to live by: Whatever happens, smile through it and don’t protest.

As Greene writes in her author’s note, it’s difficult to get information about the “secretive and insular” Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), but that hasn’t dampened the media fascination with the subject–just look at all the coverage of HBO’s Big Love and TLC’s new show Sister Wives. In researching Keep Sweet, Greene read accounts of women who had been raised in FLDS communities and subsequently left. The brutal beating (or “disciplining”) that leaves one of Keep Sweet‘s characters temporarily bedridden was based on one of these accounts.

Many of these novels are thrillers of sorts, featuring a murder mystery or risky escape plan. In the 2010 novel Hidden Wives by Claire Avery (the pen name of sisters Mari Hilburn and Michelle Poché), two teenage sisters are forced to live the “Principle” of plural marriage. Sara must become her uncle’s fifth wife, “sealed for time and all eternity in a celestial marriage.” Her sister Rachel, who is slated to marry the leader of a sect called Blood of the Lamb, suffers various abuses, including rape by her own father. The thrill of the spectacle, of peeping in on a lifestyle that’s considered creepy–at best–by mainstream American standards, is more apparent in this novel than in Keep Sweet, which remains comparatively evenhanded (and, because of its young adult audience, less lurid).

Diane Noble’s The Sister Wife is a different kind of novel. The first in a new three-book series called Brides of Gabriel, it’s set in the mid-19th century, when, as the Mormon origin story has it, church founder Joseph Smith handed down the edict that men must take multiple wives in order to get to the highest level of heaven. Noble is a well-known author of more than 25 books, including several in the genre known as inspirational–publishing code for Christian–fiction. The Sister Wife keeps to many of that genre’s conventions, and it reads a bit like a historical romance.

So what’s prompting this mainstream interest in the unusual marriage practices of a few extreme religious groups? It could be just good old-fashioned voyeurism, but maybe something else is on the wind. The institution of marriage may have opened up a bit in recent years, but expectations of marriage and children are still very real for the average young woman.

Add to that the pressure to spend tons of money on the perfect wedding, and the idea of forced marriage as a horror story may resonate more than many of us care to admit. Polygamy fiction might make for cathartic reading for any woman struggling to define commitment on her own terms.

Excerpted from Bitch (Winter 2010), which carries the torch for 21st-century feminism with incisive writing on arts and culture. www.bitchmagazine.org

This article first appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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