________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 7 . . . . November 21, 2008

cover Sister Wife.

Shelley Hrdlitschka.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2008.
269 pp., pbk., $12.95.
ISBN 978-1-55143-927-3.

Grades 7-11 / Ages 12-16.

Review by Darleen Golke.

***½ /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.


My father, his four wives and all their children fill up the last three pews in the church. I generally spend the service focused on keeping the younger children quiet, but today I'm startled when the Prophet begins to speak earnestly about plural marriage. It's as if he heard our conversation last night, and I glance at Celeste to see if she is also amazed at the coincidence. But Celeste appears preoccupied, and I see her glancing about the sanctuary as if she's looking forsomeone.

"Fathers and Mothers," the Prophet bellows over the noise of fussy babies. "From the time your daughters can crawl, you must teach them that they do not belong to you, but to the Prophet and the man the Prophet will assign her to in marriage. Only these men, and I mean men, not boys, can take your daughters to the highest degree of the celestial kingdom where they will be queens and priestesses."

I think about the Prophet's twenty-six wives and more than ninety children who make up a large chunk of our community. He has a lot of daughters to teach this lesson to.

Now he takes a deep breath, and his intense hawklike eyes scan the congregation. "When the Lord assigns me a new wife," he roars, "I take her into my bedroom. I remove all her clothes, and then I seize any worldly processions [sic] she has arrived with. I then dress her in clothes that I have had prepared for her and send everything else back to the mother and father. My wife then knows that she belongs only to me for all eternity and she no longer has connections to her mother and father. This is the only way a man can achieve oneness in his kingdom." His fist slams the pulpit.


Indoctrination begins at an early age for children in fictional Unity, a closed community that practices polygamy and dictates that girls will be assigned to a husband soon after they reach the age of 15. Almost 15, Celeste has recently begun questioning the tenets of a faith that insists, "accepting the hand of the Lord in deciding our marriages is the most sacred principle of all, and plural marriage is the only way to salvation." Her father explains, "a daughter is only in her parent's keeping until the Elders have determined who she is to be assigned to in marriage. Then you'll belong to your husband for all eternity" as do his four wives. Always troublesome because she asks too many questions, Celeste struggles with uncertainty exacerbated since Taviana, a Gentile rescued from street prostitution by one of the kinder men of Unity, has come to live with the family and shares "stories" of the outside world. In defiance of all rules, Celeste meets secretly with Jon, a young man near her own age who questions the faith and the "ways of our movement" and talks of leaving Unity. Celeste, however, loves her family and worries about bringing them shame, becoming an apostate banished from Unity, and not having a place to live and a means of surviving. After RCMP officers come looking for a runaway, the Prophet banishes Taviana, declaring her "no longer welcome in Unity or the Movement." Fortunately Taviana finds sanctuary in Springdale, the neighbouring town, with Abigail, an apostate who helps those banished from Unity by providing them with a home and support.

     Celeste's younger sister, Nanette, at 13, feels "ready to become a wife and mother. I live obediently, I have perfect faith, I'm older than my years," and "I'm pure of thought and spirit," she tells their father trying to persuade him to arrange an early marriage for her while, at the same time, tattling about Celeste's transgressions. Already devastated by Taviana's banishment, Celeste struggles to understand the sudden death in childbirth of a 17-year-old relative, especially in light of her own mother's difficult pregnancy. Nanette spies on Celeste's meeting with Jon and immediately reports to Daddy; Jon leaves Unity before the Prophet banishes him, urging Celeste to join him. Staying will "kill your spirit," he insists, "no more thinking outside the box. Your life will be identical to every other woman in Unity. You care more for your family's reputation than you do for yourself." Celeste stays, lives under a type of house arrest until the Prophet, with Daddy's total agreement, orders an immediate marriage with none other than Jon's father. As wife number six, Celeste asks, "So who is being punished here? You or me?"

     Celeste is denied her mother's comfort and support because Daddy reluctantly takes a dangerously ill Irene to the hospital where she infuriates her husband by electing to undergo a life-saving caesarean section without his permission, thereby creating another level of family discord. Celeste's marriage proceeds as ordered, her deflowering ensues, and mercifully soon she is pregnant and free of the nightly coupling. When she manages to escape the house, Celeste walks along the river bank where she finds inuksuks, "directional markers that signif[y] safety, hope, and friendship." She meets their creator, Craig, who builds inuksuks and balances rocks because it "brings me peace." Craig introduces Celeste to books that transport her from her "own world into an altogether different one." She meets regularly with Craig, engaging in increasingly fascinating conversations about life and religion that give her "a reason to get our of bed each morning." Their talking helps Craig, struggling with his own life's direction, to decide to study theology. Celeste mourns his leaving for university in Seattle. "Jon is gone. Taviana is gone. Craig is now gone too." However, the birth of her daughter the first day of spring gives her a new purpose. "Suddenly everything matters again... I want her to have everything I never had. I want her to have an education and a career and to fall in love and choose her own husband if she wants to. I want her to be independent and to travel. I want her to be free to think for herself." In an optimistic "Epilogue," Hrdlitschka fast-forwards to Celeste's life five years after the birth of her child, aptly named Hope.

     The novel unfolds from three points of view, not an altogether successful arrangement. Celeste's voice remains the strongest, and her story dominates with more than twice as many chapters as Nanette and Taviana combined. Nanette provides the traditional "pure and sweet" sister wife role, albeit not above self-interest and self-promotion. Taviana, the interloper, comes with her own set of troubles that get short shrift because of the emphasis on Celeste, yet the character allows Hrdlitschka to connect Unity with the outside world and ultimately show that sanctuary exists for those who leave the closed community. An unusual coming of age tale, Sister Wife emphasizes the problems faced by young people, especially female, living in closed patriarchal societies, every aspect of their lives controlled in the name of religion, their individuality suppressed. Realistically, outsiders like Taviana and Craig could probably never penetrate the communal world of Unity, but their presence acts as a catalyst for Celeste's development.

     Hrdlitschka provides hints of discord among the sister wives in Celeste's family. Vancouver Sun journalist Daphne Bramham in The Secret Lives of Saints: Child Brides and Lost Boys in a Polygamous Mormon Sect discusses the fate of many women in these repressive communes: "Far from there being solidarity amongst the women, far from this being a loving family unit where sister-wives work together in harmony, the wives' world is a dangerous one, rife with jealousies and conflicts." No surprise "since many of the wives weren't women, but girls when they married," like Celeste and "live in a state of arrested development, capable of all the cruelty and even violence of any teenage girls." Bramham believes "all children are treated as chattels. Girls are valuable because their fathers can trade them for power, position or property. Boys are the slave labourers who allow fundamentalists' businesses to undercut their gentile competitors who abide by labour laws and pay union wages."

     Polygamy practiced by communities like those of Bountiful, BC, or the Yearning for Zion group near San Angelo, TX occasionally makes headlines; however, in spite of the illegality of plural marriage, authorities in Canada and the United States appear reluctant to tackle the issue citing religious freedom. Celeste's situation is compelling. Hrdlitschka handles the sensitive areas of sex and abuse skillfully, keeping the emphasis on a young woman's attempts at understanding herself and coping with difficulties rather than the actual acts. Readers interested in further discussion may wish to consider books like The Secret Lives of Saints: Child Brides and Lost Boys in a Polygamous Mormon Sect by Daphne Bramham, Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs by Elissa Wall, or Escape by Carolyn Jessop and Laura Palmer.

Highly Recommended.

Darleen Golke, a former teacher-librarian, writes from her home in Abbotsford, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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