Five Wives

I just finished reading Five Wives by Winnipeg author Joan Thomas. I loved her book Curiosity and this new novel is equally riveting. Like Curiosity which is a mixture of fact and fiction Five Wives is based on the true story of five American missionaries killed by the Waorani people of Ecuador in 1956. The young men were camped on a beach near a Waorani village hoping to make contact with the isolated tribe and convert them to Christianity. Their first interaction was friendly, the second disastrous.

Each of the missionaries killed was married and Thomas’ book profiles the five women left behind when the men died. We are also given a deeply personal look into the daily lives of some of the missionary couples and their families prior to the killings.

Photo page from the January 30, 1956 issue of Life Magazine

Life magazine sent a photographer to Ecuador who was there when the missionaries’ bodies were found. He took haunting portraits of the five young widows and their seven children. That magazine story helped turn the five men who died into international heroes and martyrs especially in evangelical Christian circles.

Reading Joan Thomas’ book makes you realize yet again how dangerous and damaging it is to believe your religious beliefs are so superior to the beliefs of others, that you are willing to die to try to convince someone else to follow your particular spiritual path.

Photos of the five young men who died from a blog post on the Mission Aviation Fellowship website January 8, 2016

The young men who died trying to bring salvation to the Waorani were pilots and law students, philosophy graduates and linguists. One had studied architecture. And they were fathers and marriage partners. What might they have contributed to the world had they lived?

The five men’s deaths brought such notoriety to the Waorani people that it wasn’t long before lasting contact was established with them. We learn from Joan Thomas’ book that as a result of greater contact with the outside world many Waorani died because they were exposed to diseases they were not immune to. Contact eventually led to the Waorani losing most of their traditional lands to developers. Oil companies built roads running right through Waorani villages.

While the missionaries wanted to bring a “better” life to the Waorani they may actually have helped make things worse for them in many ways.

The women and children left behind after their husbands died

The Toronto Globe and Mail reviewer gave Five Wives a glowing recommendation. I would wholeheartedly agree with him. I spent two days doing virtually nothing else but reading Thomas’ beautifully written and intriguing novel.

What was most interesting to me were some of the comments by online readers of the Globe and Mail review. One said they wouldn’t even bother to read the book because it questioned the work of missionaries who in the commentators’ opinion “had done so much good for so many people.”

Another said they wouldn’t read the book either because it was clear from the review it painted Christians in a bad light. Quite to the contrary one of the things that drew me to Five Wives was the sympathy Joan Thomas has for her characters. Although I was disappointed to not have been able to attend the launch of Five Wives, someone told me later that when author David Bergen was interviewing Joan about her book he asked her if she hadn’t been too easy on her characters. 

Her book does, however, make it clear there are troubling things to consider about the whole idea of missions.
Joan explains in a Winnipeg Free Press interview. “You see, for example, the evangelical church as a bloc supporting Donald Trump, and all these heinous attitudes towards those coming to the southern border. Yet at the same time, they’re sending missionaries to South America. I really wanted to investigate some of the attitudes that let people live with this kind of doublethink.”

Five Wives by Joan Thomas is one of the nominees for the Governor General’s Literary award to be presented on October 29.

Joan Thomas’ book makes people of faith think deeply about many assumptions they may have made in the past. It raises a whole host of interesting and thought-provoking questions. And besides all that it tells a fascinating and absorbing story!

Other posts……….

Is It Wrong To Die For Your Faith?

Questions After Watching The Movie Silence

Common Threads- Aboriginal Spirituality


Filed under Books, Religion

6 responses to “Five Wives

  1. Don Froese

    Have you read “Educated” by Tara Westover? A fascinating read!!!


  2. Bill Lawrenz

    I look forward to reading “Five Wives” – I haven’t revisited this story for some time and a new perspective will be interesting for me since I have read a number of books by one of the wives (Elizabeth Elliot) and heard her speak on several occasions. Also, the son of the pilot, Phil Saint, attended my home church and was one of my early mentors. I certainly get the author’s point about the disconnect between some evangelicals and their support for Trump; his words and actions are blatantly antithetical to the teachings of Jesus. Obviously this points to deep problems within that community that need to be confronted aggressively. That being said, criticisms of missionaries and the work they do is quite a different topic. Considering the vast number of capacities they serve in such as health care, education, food for the hungry, housing, crisis intervention, and countless other ways, I don’t think it is possible to make those kinds of generalizations about them as a group.


    • Dear Bill,
      I would be the first to agree that faith-related agencies that do humanitarian work in our world have much to commend them. Dave and I contribute regularly to Mennonite Central Committee which in the name of Christ does all kinds of relief work around the world. I volunteer at an MCC Thrift Store which in the name of Christ recycles thousands of items each year with all the proceeds going to the relief work of MCC. One thing I have noticed about MCC is that they now collaborate much more with local organizations on the ground in countries, trusting their expertise as to what is best for their people. This is something that I think was missing in much of the ‘mission’ work done by faith-based organizations in the past. So often our ‘aid’ was tied to the local people accepting our solutions for what we thought was the best way to help them or our assistance went along with changing their culture and religion in order to receive the aid. A glaring example would be right here in North America where we offered education to indigenous children (teaching literacy was probably a good way to be of help) but along with that we forced them to leave their families, turn their back on their religion, stop speaking their native language and adopt our cultural practices while abandoning their own.
      Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then do better.”
      I think in the area of missions the Christian church needs to acknowledge that we can do better and we should.
      Thanks so much for reading my blog Bill and responding to various articles. I appreciate it so much!


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