Sunday, March 7, 2010

Sister Wife by Shelley Hrdlitschka

Sister Wife is a novel that explores the issue of polygamy and more specifically the practice of grooming very young girls to be a plural wife in religious sects.

Celeste is a young girl living in Unity, a religious sect that practices polygamy. She is on the threshold of becoming a plural wife - that is being assigned to a much older man as a sister wife. Except Celeste is full of impure thoughts - she likes a young man, her own age named Jon. Celeste also wants to continue on in school and work, something the young women of Unity are not allowed to do after the age of 15. In these ways she is very different from her younger sister Nanette who at 13 feels ready to marry. She has her sights set on Mr.Nielsson who is old enough to be her father.

When Nanette discovers Celeste has become friends with Jon Nielsson she sets in motion a chain of events that are catastrophic for Celeste and Jon. In the end, Celeste must ultimately choose between living a life of subservience in the cult or facing an unknown future free to make her own choices. Unfortunately, her conflict between hurting her family and doing what she believes is right for herself result in tragic consequences for her life. It is only with time and maturity that Celeste is able to free herself and make her own choices.

Sister Wife portrays the life of a polygamous cult in an unbiased manner, making no judgments on the practices or views each of the characters have. However, based on the actions and descriptions, it's hard to like the older men in the cult. They are bullying and controlling. The older men exercise complete control over the women, who have no choices, education or rights but all of the responsibilities of adulthood. I found the aspect of marrying very young girls, who are evidently "groomed" to be brides for older men, especially revolting. Hrdlischka's character Nanette is used to portray the woman who loves life in the cult, fully prepared to marry old men and have many children. Celeste and her mother however, portray the suffering many of these women undergo at the hands of older men in the cult.
The book touches briefly on the phenomena of the "lost boys" of these cults but doesn't go into any real depth about what it's like for them. Most are sent away since they are competitors for the older men. We see some of this in the character, Jon Nielsson, who under normal circumstances would most likely have dated or married Celeste. 
No doubt this book was inspired by the events in recent years at a polygamous sect in Bountiful, British Columbia.
Well recommended for older teens.

Sister Wife by Shelley Hrdlitschka
Orca Book Publishers 2008
269 ppp

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