Arts & Culture | Reviews

Reframing a Famous Mission Story for the 21st Century

Review of "Five Wives" by Joan Thomas

Joan Thomas’ Five Wives frames a shocking true story of five young American missionaries killed in January 1956 by native tribesmen in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador. A photojournalist for Life magazine was allowed to join the American rescue mission dispatched to find the missing missionaries. His photos of bodies scattered over a jungle landscape, and of the five wives anxiously waiting with their young children for news of their missing husbands/fathers, caused a sensation. There was worldwide interest in knowing more about Operation Auca, as this mission was named by the missionaries. Harper & Brothers publishers persuaded one of the young widows to write her account of the story behind this tragic event. Elizabeth Elliot’s story, titled Through Gates of Splendor, was published later that year. It sold more than half a million copies and is still in print.

In an author’s note included at the end of this novel Joan Thomas writes, “It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this mission in evangelical churches. Hundreds (possibly thousands) of young people were recruited to ‘take the place of the five martyrs.’ Operation Auca was one of those moving stories that, as far as I travelled from the ideology of my childhood, still lay intact in the back reaches of my memory.

In 2012 Joan Thomas read a New Yorker article (“Reversal of Fortune,” by Patrick Radden Keefe) about the politics of oil in the Ecuadorean rainforest. Noting the role that the evangelical missionaries played in that sordid tale, she decided to research the wider story. That research grew into her novel Five Wives, which won the Governor General’s literary award for fiction in 2019.

Writing a novel based on the actual lives of real characters is, in the author’s word, “delicate.” Her author’s note explains a set of boundaries she observed in writing the novel: the principal players in her chapters about Operation Auca are all based on real characters and events, although she treats them fictionally. However, the characters in the contemporary chapters that frame the story, including those depicted as the children and grandchildren of the Operation Auca families, are all fictional. 

The contemporary story opens in 2015 with the descendants of the Operation Auca families gathered at a Wheaton College chapel. The occasion, a celebration of life service for Elizabeth Elliott, who died that year at the age of 88. We meet David Saint, who is, we learn, a pastor from Oregon and the son of Nate Saint, the missionary aviator killed in Operation Auca. David had been married to Sharon Elliot, daughter of Elizabeth Elliot and her first husband Jim, another of the five martyred missionaries. We learn that Sharon Elliot Saint had died some years ago, leaving David to raise their daughter Abby (Elizabeth Elliot’s only grandchild) as a single parent. 

Abby, aged 19, has been asked to share personal memories of her grandmother at this celebration. We observe the occasion from David Saint’s seat in the auditorium, as he takes part in the celebration and eagerly awaits Abby’s turn to speak. We witness his joy and pride as Abby shares childhood memories of her grandmother, and then his dismay when Abby speaks about the contradictions in Elizabeth Elliot’s life: “When her young husband died, Betty said, ‘I prayed to God to keep Jim safe, but the Lord had something better in mind.’ Imagine being as intelligent as Elizabeth Elliot was, and as willing to think deeply about everything, and then in the end to still have faith that terrible and even bizarre tragedies are planned and carried out by God.

Pastor David Saint and his daughter Abby carry the legacy of Operation Auca now that Elizabeth Elliot has died. It becomes clear that Pastor Dave has not felt the full approval of his famous mother in law, nor worthy of his family legacy. He is immensely proud of Abby, who was baptized at age ten and has been a model evangelical teen through her high school years. 

Nineteen-year-old Abby is the grandchild heir of the Operation Auca generation. The connections are strong. Olive Fleming, the youngest widow of the missionary martyr generation has befriended and mentored Abby after her mother’s death. Abby has been dating Sean Youderian, another Operation Auca grandson who works with a Christian film producer in Los Angeles. But her worldview is evolving.

Abby breaks up with Sean Youderian; finally telling David that Sean is a total hypocrite, expecting her to be pure and virginal while not living by the same rules. Abby declines her father’s urging to enrol at Wheaton College, instead taking a year off and working as a waitress. She meets and befriends Will there, and learning that he is gay, regrets her own earlier role in an anti-gay protest at the local library. The growing tension between Abby and her father reaches crisis stage when David tries to persuade Abby to pick up the online ministry and blog for her grandmother’s books and ministry. Abby rejects the offer, and when her Dad asks whether she’s proud of her family legacy, responds, “No, I’m not proud. What should I be proud of? That we went to someone else’s country and said to people, your ways are wicked, our ways are good? It’s horrible! It’s racist!”

Abby’s words challenging the accepted version of her family history set the stage for Joan Thomas challenging re-telling of the Operation Auca story. The novel explores the characters and experiences of the five young missionary women who actually helped to plan the secret mission to reach out to a tribe which had successfully repelled all contact with the outside world. We catch a glimpse of the conservative evangelical church background, the courtships, the wrestling through of Jim Elliot’s intuition that a missionary calling was a call to celibacy.

The novel goes beyond a de-construction of the story told in the mission journals; there are surprising new details, apparently historically accurate. We learn of unfriendly relations with the Roman Catholic workers serving the scattered villages where the missionaries are posted. We learn that a native warrior died following the confrontation that ended the lives of the five missionaries; this was not known at the time, but significantly changes the story. The role played by Nate Saint’s older sister Rachel, and the animosity and rivalry between herself and the Operation Auca planning group, adds jarring discord to the missionary version showing God’s leading.

In the novel’s concluding chapters we return to the present time. We find David Saint back in Ecuador. Sean Youdarian has persuaded him to be the location consultant for a new film about Operation Auca. Visiting the beautiful region where he was born and lived his early life, David encounters an American educated cab driver who recognizes his last name and reveals that his parents were converted by Rachel Saint. He connects David with the events that forced his people out of their rainforest home into a “protectorate.” A second shock occurs when David discovers the home his father built for his young family in the 1950s now used as a destination for evangelical tourists. David leaves Ecuador, not inspired as he had hoped to be, but heartsick.

The last chapter goes to Abby. She finds herself angry and at loose ends after the showdown with her father and then a deceptive attempt by Sean Youderian to lure her into acting in the Operation Auca movie.  Spontaneously she enters a tattoo parlour and has needled into her flesh a declaration that her heart is her own. It is the final break with her Operation Auca legacy.

Five Wives is well structured and beautifully written. Readers familiar with the several Operation Auca stories still found in church libraries may experience deep shock, comparable to learning that an old friend has done a great wrong. Evangelical Christians will recognize many traits of their peculiar subculture in the story of David and Abby; Joan Thomas knows this world well. And for readers looking for a happy ending, here’s my best shot: the dedication page of this book reads, “For my loving father, Ralph Thomas.”

  • Ron Rupke retired from paid employment in late 2016 after more than 4 decades working in journalism. Christian labour relations, commercial landscaping and crop farming. With Margaret the wife of his youth, he now lives in Presqu'Ile Provincial Park on the shore of Lake Ontario where he serves as a neighbourhood handyman and volunteer, reads the great books, enjoys the great outdoors, and catches glimpses of the new heaven and the new earth.

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