Publication Date: September 2019
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Harper Collins CA
In the 1950s, in the aftermath of World War II, five American families moved to Ecuador, determined to take the Christian gospel to a pre-Neolithic Amazonian tribe they called “the Auca.” The Waorani (proper name) were just as determined to maintain their isolation, and killed the missionary men at their second meeting. Four of the wives remained in Ecuador and one, Elisabeth Elliot, went further into the rainforest with her three-year old daughter to live with the Waorani.
Joan Thomas’s fictional treatment of this incident explores themes that are both eternal and immediate: faith and ideology, autonomy and self-protection, cultural understanding and misunderstanding, grief and doubt, and isolation. Five Wives rises out of immaculate research, including a visit to the ruins of the Elliot house in Ecuador, and out of the author’s own experience with the thinking and imperatives of evangelical missions. The novel sinks into the points of view of characters who are bound by past choices, yet make their own personal bargains in the midst of a crisis.
“You know, Marj, I haven’t told you everything. I didn’t tell you exactly how it happened.” “Okay. So tell me.”
“Well, remember there was a really low ceiling on Tuesday? The clouds were rock-solid all day, they never broke. But when I was flying home, just as I was crossing the Napo, a hole opened to the southwest. It was shaped exactly like a keyhole, and it was low, close to the horizon, so the sun was streaming through at an angle—it was like one of those pictures you see of the Rapture. Everything was in 3-D. The big old kapok trees were throwing shade on the canopy, and I could see the shadow of the Piper skimming over the jungle ahead of me, almost as if it was leading me on. That was how I spied that dimple in the forest. The chagra. I would never normally have seen it. It was like I literally saw God’s hand. I saw God reach down and open the clouds with a finger. He was saying, Look, Nate. Look. There you go.” His eyes are fixed on her through this whole story. “If God’s calling me, Marjie, he’s calling you. You made a vow.”
He drops back on his pillow, and after a minute she lies down too.
He has never, ever pulled this before. Not once since the day she stood with a bunch of woody-stemmed lilacs in her hand and promised to obey him. The minister explained what the vow meant: Nate obeyed the Lord, and Marj obeyed Nate with the same respect. It struck Marj then as an efficient arrangement—and she knew she had more hope of dealing with Nate than she ever did with God.
She lies on her back and listens to the song of the crickets and frogs and cicadas, and to Nate’s breathing, which, now that he’s said his piece, quickly turns to a gentle snore. Possibly she sleeps, because the next time she opens her eyes, the room is bright and her thoughts are clear and Nate is lying on his side looking at her.
Who can find a virtuous woman, her children rise up and call her blessed.
“Listen,” she says, rolling over to face him full on. “I’ll stop fighting you on this. But Debbie is not going to boarding school in Quito. I’m not sending my little girl to an orphanage on the other side of the Andes.”
In the morning light, she sees a blink of assent so quick only a wife would catch it.
Joan Thomas’s fourth novel Five Wives won Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Award for Fiction. Described by the Globe and Mail as “brilliant, eloquent, curious, far-seeing,” it is an immersive dive into a real event, the disastrous attempt by five American families to move into the territory of the reclusive Waorani people in Ecuador in 1956.
Joan’s three previous novels have been praised for their intimate and insightful depictions of characters in times of rapid social change. Reading by Lightning, set in World War 2, won the 2008 Amazon Prize and a Commonwealth Prize. Curiosity, based on the life of the preDarwinist fossilist Mary Anning, was nominated for the 2010 Giller Prize and the IMPAC Dublin Award. The Opening Sky, a novel about a family navigating contemporary crises, won the 2014 McNally Robinson Prize and was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award.
Joan lives in Winnipeg, a prairie city at the geographical center of North America. Before beginning to write fiction, she was a longtime book reviewer. In 2014, Joan was awarded the Writers Trust of Canada’s prize for mid-career achievement.
Print Copy of Book (US Only) Giveaway will be open from September 18th to the 21st.
Let me know what you think in the comments. I’d love to interact with you. If this sounds like something you would read, let me know!