I recently finished reading Joan Thomas’s Five Wives, a brilliant novelization of the 1950’s Christian missionary endeavour known as “Operation Auca.” Easily one of my favourite reads from last year, the book is the well-deserved winner of Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Award for Fiction (2019) and other honours.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the blurred lines between Christian missionary ventures and secular colonizing projects is a significant theme of the book, and Thomas’s compelling characters move the reader to take an honest and difficult look at the legacy of Christian missions. The story of “Operation Auca” is an excellent case study for thinking through some of these issues, and Five Wives provides an engaging, empathetic (as opposed to sympathetic) critical lens with which to reflect on it.
Because I had prior knowledge of this story but had never encountered it through a decolonizing perspective, the book raised a lot of questions for me around the theme of narrative. Who gets to shape the meaning of events? What is the impact of these stories that we pass on? And what happens when an alternative story is offered?
Growing up evangelical in the 90’s, I was very familiar with the story of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Pete Fleming, Ed McCulley, and Roger Youderian, who were killed in Ecuador in 1956. The five men were speared by Waorani (formerly known by many as the “Auca” people) while on a missionary foray into Waorani territory. Two years after the killings, Jim’s widow Elisabeth Elliot and Nate’s sister Rachel Saint carried on the mission and went to live with the Waorani people. Many Waorani eventually converted to Christianity.
The evangelical church had already been mobilized in the post-war years to take evangelicalism to new places and peoples across the globe, and “Operation Auca” further galvanized these missionary efforts. Hailed as martyrs, the five missionaries’ lives and deaths took on mythic proportions, and the story was used to inspire generations of young people to become missionaries themselves. Even today, this story from the 1950’s carries a weight of moral authority that is as close to sainthood as low church Protestantism will allow.
The novel pays close attention to the creation of this mythos, noting some of the ways in which the story was shaped and disseminated. Soon after the killings, a feature in LIFE generated publicity for the story, not just among evangelicals but also the wider public. This article helped set the narrative that the story would take, in part through extensive quotations from the men’s own diaries of their short time in Waorani territory. Elisabeth Elliot’s writings were also key in shaping evangelicals’ understanding of the story and keeping it in the public eye. In 1957, just one year after the killings, she published Through Gates of Splendor, her account of “Operation Auca,” and this was quickly followed by a biography of Jim in 1958.
In Five Wives, however, I encountered a different story than the hagiographies I grew up with. The narrative Thomas tells is not one that is determined to present the murdered missionaries as saints. In her afterward, Thomas notes that, not unlike a novel, which is intentionally selective in its telling of a story, the missionaries’ accounts of “Operation Auca” had “silences and gaps,” which she discovered in her research for the novel. Five Wives fills in some of those silences. The story of “Operation Auca,” and the meanings that might be drawn from it, shifts in the process.
To those who come to the novel with prior knowledge of the story, some of the details that Thomas recounts may be shocking (I won’t share them here, as I don’t want to spoil the pacing of the novel). For me, reading this alternative version of the story I had previously known felt a little bit like betrayal—not by Thomas, but by those, like Elisabeth Elliot, who had distributed such seemingly authoritative accounts of the meaning of this story. These five murdered men were martyrs, I was told. They had given what they could not keep to gain what they could not lose.
Yet Five Wives complicates and directly challenges this simple martyrdom tale. As it does so, it invites the reader to consider the role of narrative in our communities, and the way it shapes our lives together. Flipping back and forth in perspective between the primary characters from the 1950’s and contemporary fictional characters, the novel explores what happens when we face tensions between a narrative that has become entrenched in a community and an alternative interpretation of the same story. Whose voices are we willing to hear? What might be lurking in the silences and gaps, and will we have the courage to face what we find there?
The project of decolonizing our faith requires more than just thoughtful reflection on how we might move forward in ways that are different from past failures. I think it also requires honesty about the legacy we have received. This might mean letting go of the narratives that beatify those who have gone before us, recognizing that some of the heroes of the faith might be much less like heroes than we had been led to believe. It will definitely mean making room for other narratives—the stories of those who have been harmed. We cannot retain the mythos for nostalgia’s sake, while trying to move on to something different.
Emily Dickinson famously said, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Maybe we need more novels like Five Wives to help us hear the truth about the stories we have been told.