Years ago, when I was teaching at our Seventh-day Adventist school, I had a student who was not SDA, but belonged to an even more conservative Christian group, who was a huge fan of Elisabeth Elliot’s books. Until I met this girl, I’d never heard of Elisabeth Elliot, her husband Jim Elliot, or the ill-fated mission to an isolated Ecuadoran tribe that led to the violent deaths of Jim Elliot and several other American missionaries in the 1950s. Elisabeth Elliot went on to become a celebrated author and speaker who devoted herself to keeping the memory of her husband, his fellow missionaries, and (what she and many others portrayed as) their martyrdom, alive.
At the time, I was not that interested in the story of how or why Jim Elliot and the others died; I was mostly intrigued that this woman writer, Elisabeth Elliot, was one of those conservative Christian women who saw no irony in writing and speaking widely about her faith while also promoting a traditionalist view of men’s and women’s roles within Christianity and within marriage. This apparent contradiction of women who don’t believe women should lead, but are willing to be leaders themselves (and clearly don’t “keep silent” in church) fascinated me then and now, but I didn’t think much more about it until I picked up Joan Thomas’s Five Wives, the 2019 Governor General’s Award winner for English Canadian fiction.
I found this book utterly engrossing, and I have so much to say about it. First, I’ll point out that the title is misleading, presumably for the sake of making a good title: while the five men who died did indeed leave behind five wives, only three of these wives are major characters in the novel, and several of the major viewpoint characters are not the wives but are people connected in other ways to the tragedy. That’s a nitpick, but one I want to get out of the way up front.
The author makes an interesting choice in fictionalizing a not only real, but relatively recent story. It’s tricky business writing fiction about real people, especially when either they or their children are still alive to read and have opinions about what you’ve written. Thomas keeps the names and identities of all the people involved in the original story intact, though she treats them as fictional characters by freely giving them thoughts and motivations the real people may not have had. But for their children and grandchildren, who are still living, she creates entirely fictional people who are not analogues of the real descendants of the missionaries, which gives her even more freedom to play around with and explore how this tragedy resonated through generations of these families.
Five Wives is one of those books that I’m always looking for and rarely find — a book that writes about a religious subculture, particularly that of evangelical Christianity, from a perspective both within and outside that subculture. That is, the writer’s perspective is much broader than that of her characters: we see what they could not or would not see — that their incursion into the world of the people they called the Auca (actually the Huaroni) was akin to an invasion, and their complicity with American oil companies in “opening up” these indigenous people’s territories was a cultural genocide. But she also portrays, realistically and believably, how completely the missionaries themselves — most of them anyway — believed in the truth of their mission, and believed they were truly called by God.
It’s rare to find a writer who writes about religion in way that so completely “gets” the subculture — this book is easy to compare to The Poisonwood Bible, which is also an excellent and brilliantly written book about missionaries and cultural imperialism, but Kingsolver, I would argue, does not understand evangelical Christianity from the inside the way Thomas obviously does.
I found this a thought-provoking and fascinating novel. If I have one criticism, it’s that so many characters are introduced that some perspectives and storylines don’t have time to be fleshed out as completely as I might have wished. But that’s about what I want as a reader, not what the writer was trying to accomplish. What Joan Thomas set out to do in this novel, she did brilliantly — so this is one of the years in which I agree wholeheartedly with the choice of the GG judges (I’m sure they’re hugely relieved to have my stamp of approval!)