Monday, November 2, 2009

Double Review: Sister Wife by Shelley Hrdlitschka & The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations and The Amelia Bloomer Project

After the controversies in the last year over Warren Jeffs and the raid on the Texas polygamist compound, it's unsurprising that this year we have a few titles set in similar polygamist sects.

What I wasn't expecting were two that share some uncanny similarities.

Both Sister Wife and The Chosen One focus on polygamist sects led by a charismatic - and abusive, at least to outsiders - men who call themselves prophets. Both books have a protagonist about to be married off to a much older man, despite her desire for a boy closer to her own age, and these girls fret that their impure thoughts and actions are going to damn them to hell. Each girl has a mother whose health is in danger after so many pregnancies so close together. Both books have an uncommonly gentle father who is loathe to discipline his children the way the community believes they should be punished. Libraries also play a prominent role.

I suppose on the one hand some of these similarities are just going to be part of the genre (for example, a young girl who begins to question the tenets of her faith when faced with something extremely unpalatable, such as becoming the youngest wife of a much older man, who has already been blessed with more than enough wives to ensure his place in heaven).

Sister Wife follows the stories of three women in a sect called the Movement - Celeste, who is approaching her 15th birthday, the time that young women are traditionally married, Nanette, Celeste's slightly younger half-sister who truly believes in the Movement, and Taviana, a young prostitute from the nearby town who was saved by an older man in the movement and brought to live with Celeste's family. The family is thrown into turmoil when the Movement's Prophet believes the police are looking for Taviana and suspect the Movement of kidnapping her, so he demands she be kicked out of the compound. Around the same time, the Prophet says Celeste is to be married to a much older man - a man that Nanette had hoped she would one day be assigned to marry, causing strife between the two sisters.

The Chosen One has only one protagonist, Kyra. She's younger than Celeste (13), which makes the thought of her forced marriage (to her 60 year old uncle) that much more repugnant. Like Celeste, Kyra has found a boy her own age among the Chosen Ones that she would like to one day marry, but after the Prophet says he saw Kyra marrying her uncle in a vision from God, there is no way of avoiding the wedding. Kyra seeks solace from Joshua, the boy she loves, as well as the mobile library van that drives by her compound. Kyra strikes up a wary friendship with the van's driver, and borrows forbidden books like Harry Potter.

Maybe it's because I read it first, but I enjoyed Sister Wife much more than The Chosen One. In some ways, Sister Wife feels like the much more balanced look at life within a polygamist sect - while there is much about the depicted way of life I find horrendous, it also seems to be populated by people who genuinely believe they are doing the right thing. Celeste's chosen husband assures her that he is a good husband, that he'll care for her and take care of her, and seems very genuine in these promises. Kyra's chosen husband is not only 50 years older than her and her uncle, but is shown to be cruel and domineering - he is nothing but a shallowly painted villain. All of the church leaders seem to be cast from the same mold, and explicitly tell Joshua that the young women and girls of the compound are meant for the older men, hence Kyra was chosen to be the seventh wife of her uncle while a young man like Joshua has no wives.

I always find it interesting when two books with similar themes are published at the same time, but these two carry the similarities to almost absurd levels. I'd be interested to know if anyone has read The Chosen One before Sister Wife - is one actually a superior book, or does it just seem that way because of the order I read them in?
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