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DanH is originally from Salt Lake City but currently resides in Somerville, Massachusetts, where he is working on a project to measure residents' happiness, among other things. He is an early member of Outstitute, a tight-knit association of Cantabridgians and Somervillians who meet each week to discuss interesting topics related to Mormonism. Read DanH's first guest post here.
What's the most accurate portrait of polygamy? Well, it depends on what timeframe and what version of polygamy you have in mind.
Perhaps the realest of any media is Sister Wives, an addicting reality show about a large family in suburban Utah. This is an easy choice, obviously, because it is a reality show. I would argue, however, that the most accurate portrayal of polygamy - in this case nineteenth-century, church-sanctioned polygamy - is actually an old novel called The Giant Joshua (Maurine Whipple).
Set in St. George in the era of Brigham Young, The Giant Joshua is a poignant story of a relatively young girl who marries a devout, if complexly cruel, leader in the Dixie Mission. The nouns in the novel are redolent of early Utah history, and it is clear that the author did an enormous amount of research to capture the true drama of polygamy. The book received a mixed reception, but was hailed by none other than Eugene England as "not the great mormon novel, but the greatest."
Another potential candidate is Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist (also mentioned here by Scott Hales), which received an excellent review in an article called "The Great Mormon Novel: Where is It?" It's funny to me that the two candidates for the great mormon novel are both about polygamy and are both set in Southern Utah. That said, however, Udall's character, Golden Richards, is totally different from the protagonist in The Giant Joshua. Despite their differences, Udall's novel is totally infectious. Throughout the unfolding plot, you can't help but sympathize with the fringe polygamist, Golden, who haplessly stumbles through life with three wives and a brood of children. I really can't recommend this book highly enough.
Finally, there is Big Love. In some ways, Big Love seems to be the furthest from what might be called an accurate portrayal of polygamy. The characters live in large homes in a neighborhood that looks like Sandy, and they are assimilated into mainstream Utah culture in almost every way. Nevertheless, there are certainly groups of people who associate with the lives and struggles of Bill, Barb, Nicki and Margene.
When I was preparing to write this post, I came across a delightful article in the New York Times. In it, a reporter sits down with a group of five polygamous women to watch some of the first episodes of Big Love. They seem to give it a pass.
So, returning to my original question, what is the most accurate portrayal of polygamy? I guess I would sum it up this way:
* Sister Wives is undeniably accurate and representative, at least of Cody and his family.
* Big Love gets a pass from real polygamists (although that might only apply to the first few episodes).
* The Lonely Polygamist is about an outlier, Golden Richards. It may not be the most accurate, but it is incredibly well-written.
* The Giant Joshua is heartbreaking and painfully honest. If you want to know about the trials and tribulations of early Mormon polygamists - ones who were actually affiliated with the LDS church - this is your novel.
Are there any portraits I'm missing?