Brady Udall, author of The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, has written a stereotype-busting novel about a polygamist family living in 1970s Utah. Golden Richards, the unwitting patriarch with four wives and 28 children, seems to have backed into this lifestyle, rather than choosing it. His father Royal, a man of a thousand unsuccessful get-rich-quick schemes, abandons Golden and his dyspeptic wife to seek his fortune. Late in life, he succeeds with a uranium mine, and he and Golden are reunited after years of separation. Golden inherits his father’s wife as well as his money, and gets absorbed into the small polygamist sect that Royal has joined.
The stereotype of the polygamist husband surrounded by deferential wives doesn’t really apply here. Golden is more like hired help; instead of being the lord of multiple castles, he doesn’t have so much as a room in any of them. Money is tight, and his construction firm is in trouble, so much trouble, in fact, that he’s taken a job building a brothel in Nevada just because he needs the work. And that’s where the real trouble begins, in the form of his boss’s wife.
This novel has plenty of comic moments, some of them black comic. The wives and some of the children (this would be an even longer book if all of them were important characters) are drawn with heartbreaking detail. Rusty, son of Wife #3, with his stinky feet, weight problem, and propensity for vengeful plots against his sibling-torturers; Trish, Wife #4, who has lost two children and seems to have joined this circus because she can’t stand to be alone; daughter Glory, an imp with cerebral palsy — these are just a few of the unforgettable characters Udall creates. It’s a beautifully drawn world that seems to make perfect sense, at least while you’re immersed in it.
While Udall didn’t grow up in a polygamist family, he had ancestors who did, so he brings a somewhat insider perspective to the issue. Here’s a brief video of Udall discussing the book and polygamy: