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book review
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Joan Thomas.Handout

  • Title: Five Wives
  • Author: Joan Thomas
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: Harper Avenue
  • Pages: 386

Joan Thomas is one of those brilliant, eloquent, curious, far-seeing Canadian writers who for some reason consistently flies under the media radar. She is the author of four novels, winner of various awards – Commonwealth, Amazon First novel, Engel/Findlay – and the darling of reviewers, but she still doesn’t tend to make the breathless “must read” lists.

It’s perhaps because she has no Twitter profile and lives in Winnipeg, but I suspect it’s also because, to the uninitiated, she might seem like an old-fashioned Canlit writer: A white lady of a certain age who writes from the Prairies about the past. This would be a highly inaccurate perception: Thomas’s fictitious worlds do often revolve around the past – her first novel was set in the 1930s, her second in the 19th century and Five Wives in the 1950s – and she has a fascination with unsophisticated people, with people of dour religious backgrounds or isolation. But her writing is so luminous, her characters’ insights so frequently profound that one has the impression one is reading about intellectuals or poets.

Five Wives takes some frankly unattractive people as its subject, and presents them as purely well meaning. It is based on real events: The notoriously ill-advised Ecuadorian mission of a group of U.S. Christian evangelists in 1956 to convert an uncontacted tribe called the Waorani. The mission resulted in five of the missionaries being killed in the jungle by the Waorani. The events then became celebrated in the world of American evangelism – not as evidence of the dangers of colonialism or religion, but as a heroic tale of bravery, sacrifice and martyrdom in the service of God.

Thomas’s novel is narrated by the missionaries’ wives who were left behind after the disaster, and describes their feelings – variously enthusiastic and frightened – before and after the mission. Thomas does not presume to describe any of these events from the point of view of the Waorani. (In an afterword she writes, “An intentional silence is at its core: I do not presume to give voice to Waorani people.”) Years later, a descendant of the missionaries – a young woman called Abby – is asked to act in a film dramatizing the events. She is the first of the clan to question the value of her religion; her story is a kind of promise of escape for future generations and really the only optimistic thing in this book.

Thomas’s great skill is in making the baffling foreignness of imperialist religious zeal – unfamiliar to readers such as myself who didn’t grow up around it – if not sympathetic, then at least comprehensible. The belief of these people in the existence of pure goodness is reflected in their every action and thought. This book is 382 pages of living in the minds of crazy people, and it is a strangely reasonable place. God is behind everything: every daily event is a sign, a message to be interpreted.

This emphasis on codes and decoding is reflected in the missionaries’ chosen weapon in their assault on the Indigenous peoples: language. As was the case in reality, this church trains its missionaries in linguistics, real linguistics – a difficult and serious science – so as to be able to communicate in languages spoken by almost no non-natives and spread the word of God in them.

Open this photo in gallery:

Five Wives is based on the ill-advised Ecuadorian mission of a group of U.S. Christian evangelists in 1956 to convert an uncontacted tribe called the Waoran.Handout

Throughout Five Wives, though, the question of the accuracy of the evangelists’ language is always in doubt: have they really acquired enough to communicate? Do God’s messages – or theirs – make any sense? Do the friendly announcements they broadcast to the local people through loudspeakers from planes – voices from the heavens like signs from God, but also an eerie echo of the Wagner blasting from helicopters in Apocalypse Now – have any actual meaning, or are they gibberish?

This is the women’s story, and most of them have been trained to let the men make important decisions. Their fear over the men’s obviously unreasonable ambitions are all internal, unexpressed. The drudgery the women face, feeding and washing broods of children in jungle camps with minimal food and no appliances, is described matter-of-factly rather than resentfully, and it is even sometimes itself a source of beauty. (“And then there is, in the early morning, a sense of waking up to herself, lying on her side in her beautiful room with the wide window. Opening her eyes and fumbling for the hem of the mosquito net and reaching for her clock. Ten after five. Her drying underpants a row of silvery flags in the morning light.”)

Thomas is a beautiful writer and she puts lovely rhythms into the mouths of her straitlaced narrators, lovely rhythms and buried restless defiance straight out of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The unmarried and unattractive Rachel Saint – a formidable and aggressive missionary – hears at one point that a man she loves back in the United States has a girlfriend. She thinks, “It’s the sort of brutality God specializes in, putting His finger on the bright thread of your desire and saying, I’ll take that, if you please. Cracking you open to the marrow of your bones, digging out the rosy pith, and stuffing mogey cotton in instead.” This language – the bright thread of desire, rosy pith, mogey cotton – gives these narratives a dense poetic texture. (Mogey cotton! I don’t even know what that is, but it sounds so … mogey.)

It is jarring to read such sensitivity from people whom I, in truth, think must have been, in fact, deeply stupid. Jarring, creepy, fascinating, humanizing. This exploration of the intelligence and sensitivity of outwardly conservative and unworldly people is, remember, Alice Munro’s great trick. Thomas’s remarkable feat of imagination puts her in Munro’s league.

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