Five Wives by Joan Thomas

Based on true events, Five Wives is a fictional account of the five women whose missionary husbands were killed in the rain forest of Ecuador in 1956.

You think you have surrendered everything, but there is always something more.

My expectations going into the novel were not quite met – the description on the fly-leaf implies that there is a survival element to the story: “about five women left alone in the wilderness” and “leaving their wives and children to fend for themselves“. However, happily for me and whoever else might be misled by the synopsis, Joan Thomas has written an incredible story of “the dark side of belief and the devastating legacy it can leave in its wake”.

Hearing about people who want to bring “savages” to the light by bringing them modern ideas and religion, makes me wonder why some people think they know better.

Exploring the “actions and motives of the North American intruders” is what Thomas had in mind when she wrote Five Wives. Thomas brings these missionaries and their wives to life; their ideas, beliefs, confidence, doubts, strengths, and flaws. They believe God is calling them to become missionaries and asking them to help save the souls of His ‘children’. By intruding and disrupting the lives of the indigenous of Ecuador, they believe they are “saving” them from eternal damnation. Their convictions must be strong to continue on through all the painstaking work of fundraising, flying their families to Ecuador, setting them up in unfamiliar settings, and spending weeks/months/years making very little progress.

This particular group of missionaries and their religious community trust God to ‘show’ them or ‘tell’ them what to do. And they believe that He’ll keep them safe. But what happens if they’re wrong?

Thoughts pop into your head every minute of every day, and it’s not easy to tell which are your own human (possibly silly or wicked) impulses and which are orders from the Almighty. In Rachel’s experience, God’s directives, however quietly they come down the pipe, tend to be harder and shinier than the average thought, as though they’ve been dipped in enamel. But even then, it can be hard to tell for sure.

And what happens if their wives doubt? What if they doubt their husbands’ actions and worry about their safety? All the men have to do is say, “Are you going to stand against the Lord in this?” It’s an easy way to get their wives to “obey”. In their religion, man obeys God and woman obeys man.

This is men. This is all men, God included. Men in their gangs. Men doing what they want to do.

This makes the women’s lives seem bleak and oppressive, but the wives in this book are largely supportive of their husbands; they know what they are getting into when they marry and they fully support it. One of the wives is  a missionary in her own right.

All her life she had talked knowingly about faith. But this was faith. When you felt nothing but darkness, when you understood nothing, and continued to walk resolutely in the direction God had revealed to you in brighter days.

The structure of the story allows us to visit the present as well as the past – to witness the (fictional) thoughts and actions of some of the children and grandchildren of Operation Auca – how the impact of the events have reverberated into the present. Abby, the granddaughter of two of the “Five Wives” has been brought up surrounded by the stories of Operation Auca and the martyrdom of the missionaries, as well as those of her great Aunt Rachel’s “successes” with the Waorani, but as a young adult she finds herself doubting the wisdom of her ancestors.

“Did you all believe in this mission? Did nobody have any doubts?” Abby’s voice was rough with fear, asking that. / Olive lifted those same eyes, made even bigger by reading glasses, and said, “You couldn’t afford to understand it any other way. Think how hideous that would be.”

I spent almost as much time on the internet searching up these people and events as I did reading the book. Not only is Five Wives good historical fiction – especially for readers who enjoy themes of religion or Faith – it’s also thought-provoking, with topics and ideas that are still relevant today.

Goodness is a lot more complicated than Marj ever imagined.

A favourite line: “The music is playful and spunky – it’s her mood, it pulls her forward, snatching up details from the landscape, plucking at the trees she spins between.”


Further Reading:

Five Wives won the 2019 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction

Women listening to the account of the expedition that located the bodies of their missionary husbands, Shell Mera, Ecuador – Photo by Cornell Capa

Review at The Globe and Mail: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 Chat at 49th Shelf: “I was moved to learn that Waorani activists are at the forefront of the current fight against Ecuador’s auctioning protected lands for further oil exploration. The missionaries thought they were saving the Waorani, and it turns out the Waorani are fighting hard to save all of us.

23 thoughts on “Five Wives by Joan Thomas

  1. Rebecca Foster says:

    This looks like a perfect book for me! I’m familiar with the story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, and I’m always interested in how faith and doubt are portrayed in fiction. That it won a major award is another point in its favour.

    • Naomi says:

      Now that you mention it, I wonder what the men were thinking – were they really all in, or did any of them have unvoiced doubts like a couple of the wives did? It seems like such a waste that they all died so young…

  2. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    I often find that when I read historical fiction I spend a lot of time Googling the real players. Have you read Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women? That one sent me down the rabbit holes of the internet with every story.

  3. Lisa Hill says:

    This sounds excellent…I remember being taught as a child to support missionary work, and I did unquestioningly though I doubt that my sixpences made much difference anywhere.
    But I do admire people who provide health services and the like in places that wouldn’t otherwise have help. (I am thinking of the Fistula Foundation which offers simple surgery to women with post-birth damage which makes them ostracised in their villages.) But under no circumstances do I agree with proselytising.

  4. annelogan17 says:

    I’ve been so curious about this book so I’m glad you read it. Missionary work makes me SO uncomfortable. I know it does good things in some communities (I donate to World Vision), but the idea of forcing one’s beliefs onto others is weird. It also feels like a step away from residential schools here in Canada, which the awful legacy of that still negatively affects so many people…

  5. gabe says:

    Just beginning to read this (long queue at the library!). Already I’m impressed and relaxing with the confidence that Thomas is a master storyteller.

  6. buriedinprint says:

    I’ve been so tempted by this one – because I loved her book with Lightning in the title (I bet you’d enjoy that one too – although it sounds quite different from this one – a more domestic focus – I think there’s a dog!) – and I was sorry that it wasn’t included on last year’s Giller last so that we would have had a reason to read it more quickly. Hopefully I can get to it soon! Have you read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible? It’s one of my favourites because it retells the story from all the characters’ perspectives and also considers the impact of missionary zeal..such a complicated matter.

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, I’ve read The Poisonwood Bible, but too long ago to compare them properly. I do find it an interesting subject to read about. I’m sure you’ll get to it eventually, and I would also love to read another one of her books. I was thinking of Curiosity, but maybe it should be Reading by Lightning? (Good title!)

  7. Karissa says:

    Great review! I grew up hearing this story and I’ve even seen one of the sons speak. I’m very curious to read it from a fictionalized perspective and a different perspective than it was presented to kids in church.

      • Karissa says:

        It was Steve Saint, whose father was Nate Saint. He actually brought with him the man who was believed to be responsible for killing his father. It’s a huge story among Christians so I’m definitely very curious to read it from a fictional perspective. I’m #9 on the library wait list!

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