Book Review: Five Wives by Joan Thomas

Five Wives – Joan Thomas (Harper Collins Canada, 2019)

In 1956, five American missionaries went into the jungle of Ecuador with the goal of evangelizing to an unreached tribe. All five men were killed by members of this tribe, the Huaroni. Their deaths were written about in a Life magazine article but what has truly made this story famous was the fact that the widows of those five men continued to work with the Huaroni people, taking their children into the remote jungle and continuing the evangelical mission.

Five Wives is a fictional depiction of this story. The story is told in a mix of perspectives and timelines, both from the wives in Ecuador in the 1950s and their children and grandchildren in a modern day setting. As Joan Thomas explains in her afterword, the characters in the past are real (though in a fictional presentation) while the characters in the modern scenes are fabricated.

This is a story that I’ve known for so long I couldn’t tell you when I first heard it. It’s hard to describe how huge the tale of these five men is in evangelical Christian circles. It’s widely touted as an example of enormous Christian faith on the part of these women and Elisabeth Elliot in particular is a major name amongst Christian women. She went on to write several books and though I haven’t read any, she is widely quoted to this day. As a teenager, I heard Steve Saint speak at a missions conference. He is the son of Nate Saint, the pilot and one of the men killed. Steve Saint brought with him the Huaroni man who killed his father, a man who eventually came to be like a father to Steve.

From an adult and modern day perspective, I see the complications of the story. The way the oil companies used the missionaries to access a dangerous and valuable untapped section of the forest. The white saviorism of the missionaries and their disregard or ignorance of the existing culture that the Huaroni people had. As a former missionary kid, it’s a complicated story for me to consider now. I knew that Five Wives wouldn’t necessarily be a flattering portrayal of these men or their wives and there were definitely parts that I felt defensive about, even as I recognized the ways these missionaries left behind a trail of death and destruction.

My major problem with the story as told here though was that there were too many characters. Thomas moves around through time and people and while she did so seamlessly and in a way that easily allowed the reader to follow along, I felt that we never stayed with one character long enough to really care about them. There is David Saint, the (fictional) son of Nate Saint, a pastor in the US who grew up in Ecuador with his mother and siblings, and Dave’s daughter, Abby, a young adult struggling with her position as the granddaughter of two of the men. (Her other grandfather is Jim Elliott. Abby is also a made-up character.) Abby’s story is an interesting one but seems only there to bookend the story and we never really delve deep into her own experiences.

And the five wives. We are most clearly shown Elisabeth Elliot, Olive Fleming, and Marj Saint while the other two women are almost non-existent. We get an intimate look at Olive before she marries Peter Fleming and she’s a fascinating glimpse at a young woman of the time in a very religious upbringing but then we see almost nothing of her afterward, including after she’s lost her husband. At one point, when I most wanted to go deeper with these five women, Thomas switches to the story of the photographer from Life who went to Ecuador after the men were killed. It felt unnecessary and frustrating to be learning about his brother and his brother’s ex-girlfriend (who we never see again) when I wanted to know how Olive was feeling about her husband’s death or how Marj was dealing with three young children far from home.

And Rachel Saint. Rachel was Nate’s sister, a missionary in her own stead who eventually went into the jungle with Elisabeth Elliot. I don’t know much about Rachel Saint historically. As she is portrayed in the novel, she’s truly awful, an impetus for much of the terrible things that happen. She has no redeeming qualities and no one likes her. She’s completely ignorant of her effect on those around her, from her own brother and his wife to the Indigenous people that she works with. At no point did it seem like Thomas even tried to show a more sympathetic side of Rachel. Maybe this is all historically accurate but it made Rachel feel more like a Disney villain than a real person.

I can’t pretend that my own history and beliefs didn’t affect my reading of Five Wives but I did try to read this book with as open a mind as I could. I see the flaws of those five men and their mission. I am very aware of the danger of a colonial mindset such as led many Christian missionaries throughout history and the ways people around the world are still suffering because of it. I had hoped that a book called “Five Wives” would actually focus on an honest (though fictional) portrayal of the five women who were devastated by this mission but I didn’t find that here nor did I find a book as strongly written as I had hoped.

Five Wives has drawn comparisons to Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, another story of missionaries and a book I greatly enjoyed. What struck me as the difference between the two was in the descriptions of place. The Poisonwood Bible is lush with descriptions of the Congo and how vastly exotic it would have been for Americans in the 50s. Five Wives lacked these lush descriptions or any sense that any of the characters fell in love with the place itself. Even at the end when Dave Saint returns to the scenes of his childhood, there was no depiction of that strange sense of homecoming to a place you don’t truly belong. And, again, as a former missionary kid, this is a feeling I know myself. Thomas had all of the rainforest to set her novel in but I never truly felt like I was there.

13 thoughts on “Book Review: Five Wives by Joan Thomas”

  1. Fascinating. I really liked The Poisonwood Bible, and I think I will also like this book. Interesting that it is set in the jungle of Ecuador – I don’t know many (if any) books that are set there because I guess most prefer Africa as their setting when they talk about missionary work. Latin America is very exciting, though, like you, I think I will have trouble with too many characters. Authors introduce them and I know the pleasure of creating “lives”, but I found too many characters to be very distracting and I have DNFs a fair share of books as a result.

    1. I think The Poisonwood Bible is a better written novel, but if the content and exploration of missionary work in that time interests you then you might appreciate this book. I was excited about the setting of Ecuador too but it ended up feeling like a missed opportunity because the setting was never fully created for me; I never felt like I was there or that the unique setting of remote Ecuador mattered to the story. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts if you do read this!

  2. You’re right; I would think that this book would closely follow the actual lives of those five wives, and the imagination would come in with what they were thinking or doing, a way to imagine their lives in a way that readers may not access otherwise. Did they book have anything to say about the author getting permission to write the fictionalized stories of these families?

    1. A much narrower focus would have served this story better, in my opinion. I’m not sure about permission, she never mentions it though does mention that all but one of the wives are now passed away. So she’s not writing about any currently living real people though if this were my mother or grandmother or aunt I wouldn’t necessarily be pleased at the portrayal.

  3. I always rather wish authors would fully fictionalise this kind of story so the reader isn’t distracted by wondering how true the characters are to real-life people. And I’m afraid at the moment the reaction against colonialism in all its forms is so extreme that I doubt we’re getting any more of an accurate picture than the jingoistic tales of the past – I suspect the reality always fell somewhere in-between, with some good and some bad being done. I have The Poisonwood Bible on my TBR so I’m glad to hear you enjoyed that one more!

    1. Yes, it did feel a bit strange to tell a fictional story about real people who are still alive (their children at least). I can’t imagine the real life children of the five men and women are at all happy about this book. I think in the west we (hopefully) have a much better understanding of existing cultures and things like just because a tribe doesn’t wear clothes doesn’t mean they have no morals. But I don’t believe these missionaries were quite as ignorant as this book portrays them. It’s a complicated story. Poisonwood Bible explores some similar themes but, in my opinion, does so much more skillfully. I hope you might enjoy it, especially as a sort of 20th century answer to something like Heart of Darkness.

    2. Yes, Hilary Mantel published a short story collection a few years ago, called The Assassination of Mrs Thatcher, and that’s exactly what the title story was about – someone who hated her politics shooting her, and it was written as if it was funny. I must admit I wondered what her children and grandchildren must have felt about it, especially since she’d only died a couple of years earlier. I do think authors should show a bit more empathy sometimes. Poisonwood Bible sounds good!

    3. I read that story collection though I don’t know much about Thatcher so I didn’t really think about the real life implications. I think it can be easy to forget that these tea historical figures have people who love and miss them, especially when it’s such recent history.

  4. I have never heard of this story before but it sounds like a fascinating case to examine. It’s too bad it doesn’t focus as closely on the women as the title suggests, I agree (though without having read the book) that a narrower focus of characters would probably have helped. It seems like I’m probably better off keeping The Poisonwood Bible on my TBR instead!

  5. I’ve always wanted to read Poisonwood Bible, another classic on my TBR! The premise of this book is fascinating to me, but I’m disappointed to hear Thomas doesn’t focus more on the wives themselves, that’s who I’d want to focus on the entire time! Seems like a missed opportunity, plus too many characters just gets muddled in the end.

    1. You should definitely read Poisonwood Bible! I’ve read a few of Kingsolver’s books but that’s her best, in my opinion. Thomas suffers from a too many characters problem for sure. Especially by the time she started going into the photographer’s life in NY I felt like she was entirely distracted from the actual plot and interest point of the story.

      (Sorry for the slow response – I just found this comment in my spam folder!)

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