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.
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.
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 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.”
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!