Literary Wives: The Bishop’s Wife

In Mette Ivie Harrison’s The Bishop’s Wife (2014), Linda Wallheim is the wife in question. She’s the wife of a Mormon (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or LDS) bishop, and works to help him in his unpaid work as clergy for their church. She often calms down members of their ward (parish) and finds ways to serve and love when her husband cannot do it all alone.

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This is the April pick for the Literary Wives Series, in which a group of bloggers read a book with the word “wife” in the title and then try to answer the following questions.

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

Please visit the following bloggers to see the full conversation about this book and to add your own thoughts.

Naomi of Consumed by Ink

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

Kay of What Me Read

While The Bishop’s Wife is useful for explaining the intricacies of how the LDS church works on the local level, it is mostly a fictional account of how one bishop’s wife might operate in extremely unlikely circumstances. This novel is mostly a mystery novel, based on events that would be unlikely to occur within the same local area in a short period of time. But that is what makes a good page-turner. We must suspend our disbelief.

One mystery in the novel centers around the disappearance of ward member Carrie Helm. She has left behind her daughter Kelly and her husband Jared, and Linda is unsure of Jared’s ability to care for his five-year-old daughter and if Carrie is even alive. It seems that she may have disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and her parents go to the press claiming that Jared was abusive and controlling. (This story line reminded me of the recent real-life case in Utah in which mother Susan Powell went missing, and her husband Josh was the prime suspect. He ended up blowing up himself and his sons in his Washington state home on a supervised visit. Susan’s body still hasn’t been found.)

The other mystery concerns an older couple, Tobias and Anna. Tobias is on his deathbed and tells the bishop that he has a secret, but isn’t ready to confess. Anna is Tobias’s second wife and she raised his two sons, but nobody seems to know exactly how his first wife died. As Linda spends time with the family helping out, she comes across a bloodied hammer and dress in the garden and shed, respectively. She suspects that Tobias’s first wife is buried in the garden, but she dismisses that feeling because it seems as if she’s letting her imagination run wild, especially since she suspects Jared of killing his wife as well.

These story lines are what kept me turning the pages, and they provide many pictures of what it means to be a wife.

For Linda, being a wife means helping her husband to fulfill his duties as a Mormon bishop. While in my experience Mormon bishop’s wives don’t get this involved in members’ lives, this book gives us an idea of the many tasks required and expected of members of the LDS church. As a wife, Linda is mostly supportive, but she has sorrows and frustrations of her own. While she raised four boys, they had a stillborn girl years ago, and that event still haunts her. She and her husband are emotional about this, but seem to have never dealt with that emotion. She is also outspoken and somewhat unorthodox, but she hides this at times because of her status as the bishop’s wife. She doesn’t want to jeopardize his ability to lead and serve or get into any trouble with church hierarchy for her differing views on certain topics. And she’s secretive. She discovers a lot of interesting and pertinent information to the mysteries, but she keeps them to herself because she’s afraid of what her husband will say or how he will react to her involvement. While they seem to have a good, normal marriage, I think there was a lot of work to be done in their communication skills with one another.

From Anna, we learn that a wife is long-suffering and must put up with being second best or second place. She’s the second wife, and in Mormon doctrine, when people are married in the temple, they are sealed together for eternity. Tobias has never agreed to be sealed to Anna, as he still loves his first wife, and this is a source of pain for her. She wants to ask him about it, but she already knows the answer. “He won’t do it. I always thought he would change his mind. He said that he never would. At least he warned me. He is one of the most truthful people I know. His truth may hurt, but at least he does not hide it” (p. 38). When things blow open involving the mystery of his first wife’s disappearance, she’s disappointed and betrayed because she believed so strongly in his truth telling. Her status as second wife suddenly seems obsolete and unfair. In the end, the details are worked out and she finds a way to see the truth about her husband and respect his life and his decisions. But she’s also eager to find out who she is and to explore the world. She doesn’t necessarily want to remarry after he dies because she doesn’t want to be second place again.

From Carrie, we learn that being a wife might be overwhelming and that seeking protection from a husband might not be the solution to the ghosts of the past. We find out that she was a troubled woman who ran away to pursue a life of sex and seeming freedom, but it doesn’t work. We also learn that despite Jared’s love for her, she has a hard time accepting it. Being a wife (and mother) is work, and if one isn’t emotionally prepared to handle that role, disaster can strike. However, Carrie’s past (which involved being emotionally and sexually abused) accounts for her failings as a wife, and we learn that the truth behind her mistakes has more to do with the way the men in her young life treated her.

Overall, I liked this book. I realize that it was corny and not necessarily high literature, but it was a page-turner and one of the first mysteries I’ve read in a long time. I liked Linda’s relationship with the young girl Kelly, and how she had to deal with her own demons in the midst of trying to comfort others in theirs. She reminded me that “the small arm years” are precious, and that I should enjoy the time I have left carrying my four-year-old (who just turned five) and accepting her many hugs and kisses (p. 181).

This book reminded me that things aren’t always as they seem, and that it is easy to jump to conclusions, but hard to love people in their faults and to show patience and restraint. Linda learns that lesson and teaches it to us as she journeys. Her lessons learned reminded me of a great sentiment: “We are here to love others and improve ourselves, not to love ourselves and improve others.” Linda embodies this discovery and reminds us that it is human to err, but it is also human to learn from mistakes.

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31 thoughts on “Literary Wives: The Bishop’s Wife

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  1. I look at Carrie and Jared’s marriage differently. His horrible attitudes toward women seemed really harsh (although his father’s were worse). Of course, her past was a terrible background for leading a successful marriage and she chose him because he was strong and she thought he could keep her father away. But Jared didn’t seem that loving to me.

    1. Agreed. I didn’t like him at all. I liked the twist, that he hadn’t done it, but things still weren’t right just because her dad was a psycho.

        1. There are disappointingly many still around. They were closely based on the real-life case I mentioned, Josh Powell and his father. Those two are pieces of work!

            1. Harrison twisted it. In real life, we don’t exactly know what happened to Susan Cox Powell, and her husband ended up blowing up himself and their two kids on a supervised visit. Such a horrific event. His father is or was in jail for child pornography and they are still trying to figure out what happened to Susan, but they know that she’s probably buried somewhere in the Utah desert.

  2. I love that line: “We are here to love others and improve ourselves, not to love ourselves and improve others.” I liked that Linda wasn’t judgmental – she just wanted to help.
    I’m glad you included some of the other wives in the book – I hadn’t thought of doing that. The other wife I thought was interesting was Carrie Helm’s mother. But, I don’t think I could even begin guessing what she thought of herself as a wife; I think she had some pretty big issues.
    For the most part, it sounds like we felt the same way about the book. I was kind of wondering what you thought of all the objections to the way Mormonism was depicted from some of the Goodreads reviewers, but you feel the same way as me about the fact that a mystery novel is not necessarily going to depict things the way they usually are.
    I would like to read Harrison’s memoir sometime, I think.

    1. Oh. My. Carrie Helm’s mother is one that makes me madder than a hornet. I had some difficult things happen in my childhood because of my mother and my step-father, and all these years later, I’m more mad at my mom for what my step-father got away with than I am at him, because she never attempted to protect us. That could be some misplaced blame, but it feels like more of a betrayal when a parent can protect you and refuses to. I didn’t know Harrison had a memoir! I’ll look into it. As to how Mormonism was depicted, it seemed pretty correct to me in terms of procedures and little cultural things, but as you said, everybody is different and there’s no one stereotype that fits all experiences, even within one culture/religion. The happenings and mysteries were WAAAAAY exaggerated. Nobody sees that much crime happen in one neighborhood in one short length of time. I thought Linda’s role as bishop’s wife was exaggerated as well, as no bishop’s wife I’ve ever met has been as involved as she was.

      1. I think some of the reviewers on Goodreads thought that Mormon men were getting a bad rap, but, like you said, the misogyny in this book is hugely exaggerated for the purposes of the story/mystery.
        I felt like one of the reasons Linda’s role was exaggerated was because she felt like she wanted more out of life, so she was trying to give that to herself by becoming more involved.
        I agree that the betrayal of the parent who could protect you, but chooses not to, seems worse than whatever it is they should be protecting you from. As a mother, if I knew and allowed things to go on, I would never be able to live with myself. I’m sorry you have to feel that way toward your mother.

  3. Oh, my…well, I guess you can definitely tell this book hit a real “nerve” with me. I can imagine that Harrison may well have exaggerated to make a point. Frankly, Anna’s situation was just a repetition of the same for me, after all, from what we know in the book, her own father most likely killed her! Geeminy! Although Linda and Kurt’s marriage was the closest of all the relationships depicted to what I consider a “good” marriage should be, I felt it was still very “traditional,” in that she felt she must constantly suppress her true feelings and never approach him about their deceased daughter. So for me, this was still quite dysfunctional, at least for Linda’s health and well-being. Ack! And don’t forget the PHYSICAL abuse heaped upon Carrie. Her body was covered with bruises, etc., in every little space that clothing would/could cover! In my opinion, she never had a chance at normalcy in life. I’m certain she found it impossible to establish and maintain a healthy relationship with anyone. I felt she really tried to give her daughter a life she had never had, but I don’t fault her for her inability to maintain relationships of any type as this is typical for abused children in adulthood. I like your even-handed review, Emily! And yes, definitely enjoy your kidlets! Thankfully, they have a safe and happy home life!

    1. Absolutely their marriage was “traditional.” That’s definitely the Mormon way. And yes, traditional can be dysfunctional, especially if women participate in patriarchal authority to their own emotional detriment and if they must constantly be in a state of double consciousness in order to make it through the day. I liked that your review brought up these hard (yet subtle) issues, although I suspect Harrison was attempting to critique some of it as well.

      1. You’re quite gracious, Emily! BTW, I concur with Naomi–good pick! And I also agree with you, unfortunately, I always blame the partner as much as the abuser, if not more, but with that said, the child abuser is typically also abusing the partner, at least verbally/emotionally if not physically/sexually. And research shows one can be just as damaging as the other. Like Naomi I am also sorry you need to feel that at all toward your mother. My mother certainly lacked many of the behaviors I would have preferred, but at least I never had anything like that… 🙂

  4. Good life lesson at the end. When I see “wife” in the title, to me it indicates a book of discovery for someone who is limited by others or herself by being the wife of some titled person. The discovery could be the titled spouse is not what he seems or the wife is learning about herself and what she wants. Glad you enjoyed it, BTG

    1. I like that interpretation of these types of books. I hope that most of them start with some sort of subsumed identity and that the characters learn to find themselves in some way.

      1. Emily, I finally read “Gone Girl” while on vacation. I think it was in one of your bookshelf posts. Very interesting story and pretty quick read. I liked how Gillian Flynn told the story with the diary and current action. My wife and I will check out the movie to see who played each role, knowing Ben Affleck would be a good lead. I am trying to stay away from the plot, since, I don’t want to be a spoiler to anyone. Thanks for the recommendation, BTG

        1. Fun! I am glad you read it. Be warned that the movie is disturbing, more so than the book, because of the visual elements. What a crazy story, though! And yes, Affleck was the perfect Nick because he seemed guilty like he is supposed to.

    1. Agreed. Books that treat religion as a “normal” part of the narrative fascinate me and make me feel like an honorary member or at least included and immersed in that culture for a day.

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