Like many works of historical fiction, Five Wives by Joan Thomas takes a real event and colors in the details that the historical record doesn’t have. Five Wives does something else, too. In addition to bringing deceased people back to life, Thomas also has to contend with the legend that has sprung up around Operation Auca, a Christian mission to the Huaorani who live in the Ecuadorean Amazon. The mission is considered a success by the church organization that sponsored it, which means that uncomfortable details and human frailty are glossed over so that listeners can focus on the glory of god. The fact that five of the missionaries are murdered by the Huaorani just makes this story even more an illustration of god’s will to the evangelical Christians. Thomas works in between grim reality and ecstatic legend to create a deeply human story of pride, doubt, and cultural destruction.
In the afterword, Thomas reveals which of her characters are fiction and which are fictional representation of historical people. The generation that launched the mission are mostly historical; their descendants are mostly fictional. Five Wives spans three generations to tell the long tale of Operation Auca, from its inception in the brains of a group of evangelical Christians to the present day. Most of the novel centers on Elisabeth Elliot, her son David, and her granddaughter Abby. The novel opens with Elisabeth’s funeral. Like the stories that are told later, Elisabeth’s funeral is full of stories about the great woman. Everyone has their own perception of her. Some view her as a hero of their religion. Her son sees her as the impossible role model he has to live up to. Her granddaughter sees her as an aloof representation of a religion that Abby is beginning to turn against.
From that microcosm of Five Wives, we travel back in time (with brief glimpses in the novel’s present) to the early fifties as the five couples that later created Operation Auca make their way further and further into the Amazon. Initially, the mission was to the Quechua. The missionaries take up residence in a settlement created and abandoned by Shell Oil (who bailed out when it became too expensive and dangerous to prospect for oil there). The Quechua warn the missionaries about the Huaorani. (Auca is a derogatory name for the Huaorani that was commonly used in the twentieth century.) The Huaorani are an uncontacted group who, until the missionaries arrive, live according to their own ways, defending themselves with lances and poison. The semi-official leaders of the operation, Nate Saint and his sister, Rachel, are determined to convert the Huaorani—whether or not the Huaorani want to convert.
The way that the Saints and the rest of the missionaries talk about their objective and the Huaorani people scares and angers me. Their fierce determination admits no doubt. They are so firmly convinced that what they are doing is god’s will and absolutely right that they fiercely fight against questions, doubts, or other points of view. They never ask if they should. Instead, they interpret their own hubris as the voice of god in their heads. Nate and Rachel compete to be the first to convert a Huaorani person so that they can be the first, which one might think is not really the point of converting someone. They also never consider the impact of forcing the Huaorani to give up a way of life that they have lived for generations. This is the part that angers me. Towards the end of the book, when David returns to Ecuador and the Huaorani village where his mother worked, we see how destructive Western ways are. The people have rashes from wearing more clothes than they used to. They are losing their culture (which Rachel claims they never had) and language. They’ve lost a lot of their land in an underhanded government deal and have been forced to become sedentary. This theme in Five Wives is very much the story of colonialism.
Thomas never loses the human element in this big story. She took me inside the minds of people I thought I would never really have access to, since I tend to give evangelical Christians wide berth. The minds of the Elliots and the Saints are alien places to me. As I read their thoughts about god and saw their world view, I came across so many points when I wanted to call these people out. I wanted to ask them tricky questions that got me tossed out of Sunday school years ago. Mostly, I wanted to tell them that they should have left the Huaorani (and for that matter, the Quechua) alone. All of the missionaries would’ve done well to close their mouths, sit down, and listen to the people they meet instead of overwriting everything with what they believe is the only way to live and believe.
My emotional reaction should serve as a clue to how very, very good Five Wives is. For all that the characters infuriated me, I was deeply engaged in this book. This book is a brilliant character study in addition to being an exemplary work of historical fiction. Enough of my gushing! Just read it!
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.