It takes guts to write a sympathetic novel about a polygamist family, given the lifestyle is frowned upon in the majority of US culture—and in the US courts. It takes even more talent to pull it off, as Brady Udall does in The Lonely Polygamist.
Though Mormons outlawed Polygamy over a century ago, there are still pockets of practitioners in the American West, particularly in Arizona, Utah, and Texas. Many inhabit sprawling compounds closed to strangers, wherein they homeschool their children, raise their own food, see to their own medical treatment. These extreme religious practitioners are often considered cult members by more mainstream Mormons and secular Americans, and debate continues to rage over their legal rights.
Polygamy took a severe blow in 2008, when police descended on Arizona’s Yearning for Zion ranch, owned by Warren Jeffs, a self-proclaimed prophet then serving time for rape and incest. The ensuing raid resulting in the removal of 400 women and children by social services. The women, wearing handmade dresses straight from the Little House on the Prairie books and sporting bizarre hairdos (a “pouf” of hair on top, descending into a long ponytail or braid down the back) would say nearly nothing about the ranch. They wanted their children back, and based on the screaming and howling of the children, they wanted their mothers back, too.
Jeffs remains imprisoned for multiple crimes including polygamy, incest, rape, and sex with minor girls.
Udall’s Golden Richards, husband of four wives, father of 28 children, is no Warren Jeffs. He lives in Utah’s Virgin Valley, part of a dwindling church sect led by the aging Uncle Chick. He isn’t even especially religious.
Rather, six foot, six inch Golden, named for the color of his hair, is a sweet, befuddled soul whose enormous size is at odds with his shy character. Golden is a victim of what my brother calls “the wound-up theory:” in short, any series of unfortunate or unusual events that land an individual in his or her spot in life. These life stories often end in “and that’s how I wound up…” robbing a bank, working for a failing University (cough), or fathering 28 children by four women.
Golden arrived in the Virgin Valley courtesy of his father, Royal, a charming, restless ne’er do who hit it big with uranium mining. When his only son appeared on his Nevada doorstep at age 19, though really still a child, Royal brought him into the Mormon church, where he himself sought to mend his wild ways. Years later, Golden is one of the Council of Twelve, one of the church apostles. His church once hoped he would prove The One Mighty and Strong, sent by God to deliver the scriptures to the anxiously awaiting souls who follow The Principle: God’s will that they marry and bear many, many children.
Golden fails to be the One Mighty and Strong, fails to control his three houses—Big House, Old House, and the duplex inhabited by his fourth and youngest wife, Trish. The wives are bickering, particularly with the first and eldest wife, Beverly, whose iron control and icy demeanor extend over all three homes. Nola and Rose-of-Sharon, sisters, inhabit Old House. Nola is brassy and finds humor in everything, while Rose is timid to the point of alarm. Trish, young, beautiful, and lonely, nurses her grief over two stillbirths as her sole child, Faye, unnerves everyone by praying constantly, a sanctimoniously pure seven-year-old.
The other children, ranging from age three to 17, run in enormous bands of screaming, shifting allegiances. Golden stares at them, his affection numbed by their demands, their rambunctiosness, and in some cases, their strange behaviors. Four-year-old Ferris refuses to wear bottoms. Jame-O, also four, cannot be parted from his beloved vacuum cleaner. Rusty, aged 12, is every kind of trouble, a fat, sweating boy who cannot keep quiet. Though he is Rose’s child, he is sent to live with “Aunt Beverly” and her children in Big House, where it is hoped he may be disciplined into a religious, obedient child.
Golden supports this enormous brood with money left from his father, some tumbledown rental properties in Mexicantown, and his construction business, called on to build an extension to a Nevada brothel. This sinful employment causes Golden great consternation, but he is desperate for cash. So it is he spends days away from his family, ensconced in a tiny trailer, working on the Pussy Cat Manor. Naturally, he must lie to his wives and the church about the nature of his employment.
From here the book, at 602 pages, charges off in multiple directions, taking us into the heads of Golden, Trish, and Rusty, whose lives, while seeming to wildly diverge, are actually heading toward collision in a headlong in a series of events that will forever change the Richards family. Golden is a magnet for mishap. With his aversion to conflict and ability to tune out, he manages to miss critical moments while becoming ensnared in conflicts ranging from the ugly to the ridiculous. His job at the brothel is complicated by owner Ted Leo, a nasty piece of work fond of heavy drinking and gun waving. When Golden meets a mysterious, beautiful woman near his trailer, life becomes even worse. For the first time, he falls in love—and this woman is the wrong choice.
Trish, for her part, grew up in a polygamous family, left religious life only to marry disastrously, lose an infant, then return to polygamy in the form of Golden, whom she adores. She also likes the loud warmth of family life, her sister-wives, and like every other Richards in the book, longs for more solo time with Golden, who has neglected her of late. Trish is lonely for love, for sex, for more children. Her one child with Golden, Charles, was stillborn, a loss she has never recovered from.
None of the family realize the many miscarriages the women suffer might be related to their proximity to a federal bomb-testing site. Not even the birth of Glory, who suffered from Spastic Cerebral Palsy, is linked in their minds to radioactivity. She is one of God’s angels, and during her brief life she is beloved by her father.
Udall writes movingly about fatherhood. The Richards family, Golden included, love their children deeply. Their bonds to their offspring normalize them: the reader forgets she is reading about a family whose very existence is illegal, forgets that perhaps the women are getting the short end of the stick, that being one of so many children means precious little individual attention. Golden’s total devotion to the profoundly disabled Glory is an expression of unconditional love; his loss of her a wound that will never heal, despite the love he carries for the rest of the clan. He does love them, a feeling he will learn to express only after disaster scorches the family a second time.
Rusty is every teenaged, misfit kid, only this misfit has the added misfortune of living in a “plyg” family. His threadbare hand-me-downs, his home haircut, his sweaty feet and general air of dampness make him a target at home and school.The boy, outwardly continuing to make trouble, withdraws emotionally, keeping careful notebooks that will shed terrible evidence on a disaster after the fact. He is, as the compassionate Sheriff Fontana says, “just a mixed-up boy wanting a little attention.”
They all want attention: the wives, the children, the mysterious woman, even the unpleasant dog, Cooter. Golden has no idea how to cope. There are momentary refuges in Mexican town, where the worldly wise Nestor listens, dispensing good (often hilarious) advice and forbidden jelly jars of mescal. There is his time with Huila, the lovely mystery woman, and his hideouts in the unfinished playhouse intended for Glory.
As the novel gathers momentum, events begin tumbling upon each other faster and faster, leaving the reader unable to put the book down. Like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, another novel about a dysfunctional family, The Lonely Polygamist will wreck any other plans you have once you start reading it. As the revelations come, and the holiest tumble from their pedestals, your initial frustration with Golden’s passivity turns to respect.
You may find polygamy repulsive, but must be said that none of the Richards wives are married to Golden against their will. They are not mistreated. There are no plans to marry off the elder daughters to older church-goers. Rather, they are a family, albeit an unusually large one, beset with the problems of all families, compounded by the problems of polygamous ones.
Although the novel’s trajectory has moments of near madcap mania, especially toward to end, Udall ties everything together in a bittersweet close. You may object to what the Richards family represents, but it’s impossible to dislike them.