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Five Wives

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In the tradition of The Poisonwood Bible and State of Wonder, a novel set in the rainforest of Ecuador about five women left behind when their missionary husbands are killed. Based on the shocking real-life events

In 1956, a small group of evangelical Christian missionaries and their families journeyed to the rainforest in Ecuador intending to convert the Waorani, a people who had never had contact with the outside world. The plan was known as Operation Auca. After spending days dropping gifts from an aircraft, the five men in the party rashly entered the “intangible zone.” They were all killed, leaving their wives and children to fend for themselves.

Five Wives is the fictionalized account of the real-life women who were left behind, and their struggles – with grief, with doubt, and with each other – as they continued to pursue their evangelical mission in the face of the explosion of fame that followed their husbands’ deaths.

Five Wives is a riveting, often wrenching story of evangelism and its legacy, teeming with atmosphere and compelling characters and rich in emotional impact.


400 pages, Paperback

First published September 3, 2019

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About the author

Joan Thomas

5 books84 followers
My fourth novel, Five Wives, is a fictional dive into an real event that astonished me. It recently won the 2019 Governor General's Award for Fiction.
My previous books have been nominated for the ScotiaBank Giller Prize, the Governor General's Award, and the IMPAC International Dublin Literary Award. I live in Winnipeg. You can visit me at joanthomas.ca.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 268 reviews
Profile Image for Gail Amendt.
626 reviews24 followers
February 24, 2020
This is a book about the dark side of evangelical Christianity, something with which I am very familiar. I didn't grow up evangelical, but I grew up surrounded by evangelicals. I have even been the target of their missionary zeal. I was the wrong kind of Christian in their view, and my evangelical classmates set themselves to winning me over to the good side. I think that experience made this novel especially painful for me to read. Based on real historical events, it tells the tragic story of a group of American missionaries who attempted to convert a previously uncontacted tribe in Ecuador in the 1950's. The five wives of the title are left behind when their husbands are killed while attempting to make contact. The tragedy, of course, is not just the death of the five missionaries, but also the destruction of the culture of the tribe whose souls they sought to save. The attitudes and misconceptions of the missionaries made me cringe. In the author's note at the end of the book is a quote from anthropologist Wade Davis..."Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you." I think this says it all.
Profile Image for switterbug (Betsey).
819 reviews752 followers
December 5, 2019
Operation Auca was a doomed 1956 mission undertaken by Evangelican missionaries in Ecuador. They tried to convert an isolated tribe of people who spoke an obscure language, and depended on succeeding through the grace and will of God. Joan Thomas’s alacrity with the primary facts builds a captivating story of the husbands, and especially the five wives. The wives were left stranded and widowed in the deep of the Ecuadorean rainforest. Without derision or deference, Thomas created fictional dialogue and suitable temperaments on factual characters, based on what was already known, and twined it to her lucid imagination. Her style of prose and the observant, understated voice are so eloquent that it allows the reader to glean what was plausible. It is a potent and masterful novel rich in gravitas.

To be frank, I expected a serious bias to float to the top of the text, depending on Thomas’s approach. Instead, she let the characters speak for themselves and did not lay a writer’s judgment on them. That’s why it is so masterful—she doesn’t tell you what to think; you think for yourself and conclude corollaries or upshots of your own. It boils down (but not reductively so) to different groups and their objectives for meddling in an ancient tribe’s habitation. The missionaries, the capitalists (oil companies and that which they bring aboard), even a Catholic priest, all have distinct and definite goals. Agendas clash and occasionally align. The priest was more pragmatic in his role there, but the Evangelists were more ardent and enthusiastic about their calling from God, which they believed they heard from Him directly.

I am impressed with the author’s ability to research these missionaries and give them layered and complex natures. Wife and widow, Betty Elliot (who became a well-known Christian author and speaker), said, “But six men now have given their lives to the Aucas’ salvation. That’s a marvelous indication of God’s love and purpose.” As a secularist, I cringed, but Thomas didn’t reduce Betty to simplistic pronouncements of God’s glory. Betty also sensed, “The widow’s task is not weeping but thinking. Every widow has to grasp the new shape of her life, so that she might embark upon it wholeheartedly. Every widow has to understand how one event led to the next…this new preoccupation absorbs her every minute.”

Three generations of this church come alive in the course of this novel. The moral center may be young woman Abby, third generation and contemporary figure, Betty’s grandniece and the granddaughter of another of the wives (and, as Joan Thomas tells us in her note, a wholly fictional character). Abby contemplates and synthesizes the information she has learned about the Operation—the nuanced miscalculations that turned the Operation into an ambush, the future of the Waorani people and where they stand now in contrast to 1956, and Abby’s own points of divide with the church, where her dad is a pastor. She perceives it from many sides, and in this way the reader experiences how generations evolve as their lifestyle, education, and environment changes.

I don’t want to rehash the plot, as it is the narrative; characters; the poise of Thomas’s writing; the devotion and devoutness of the wives; and the struggle to raise a family in the deep unknown, far away from your home, that has the stirring impact. Creating their own hearth under these challenging circumstances acutely affected them. I differ with the missionaries’ belief that God directed these events—and that the outcome was for God’s larger purpose—but the novel isn’t about a verdict, it’s an exploration into the human condition; it’s not a debate, it’s a penetration into the experiences of all involved.

When I finished the last page, I heard the silence around me, and then the sounds of nature, in different proportions, depending how near or far, how loud or faint. In this astounding novel, all the voices are present. We, the reader, are witnesses to cultural shifts and true believers and their flaws and missteps. Are there consequences for civilizing a tribe with your own mores and values? Is your faith and sincerity the X factor? What price is righteous? Are we imperialists? Light...or darkness? “You can endure anything if you think the whole world is watching.”

Joan Thomas is an exquisite, provocative writer, and FIVE WIVES left me with rousing questions to every answer.
Profile Image for Krista.
1,351 reviews516 followers
July 26, 2020
They stand and sing with full hearts, “We rest on Thee, our Shield and our Defender!” The melody is beautiful and old. Finlandia. Five wonderful young men stood beside his dad’s plane and sang this hymn that fateful day in early 1956 when they flew into the camp on the Curaray River. Five who knew the terms of their mission. They knew, and still they went. “When passing through the gates of pearly splendour, Victors, we rest with Thee through endless days.”

Based on the true and tragic events known as “Operation Auca”, Joan Thomas’ Five Wives makes for an intriguing read (and especially to someone like myself who didn’t know the story going in) and I’m not surprised that this novel won Thomas the 2019 Governor General’s Literary Award for English Language Fiction. In an afterword, Thomas relates the extensive research that went into this project, and also states that while the principal characters in this book (the five missionaries and their wives) are lightly fictionalised (events are true but conversations and relationships imagined, etc.), Thomas decided to entirely invent the next two generations of their families (out of a reluctance to write about living people). This made for a slightly uneven reading experience for me: the true bits were the most dramatically satisfying (with narratively pleasing hubris and irony and natural suspense), and while I can see the need for the modern characters (to reflect on the tragedy’s legacy and to demonstrate how faith and culture evolve), I found that the invented paled against the actual; I think I would have liked this better if Thomas had stuck to the facts. Three and a half stars, rounded down.

Is it better to have an empty drum of a heart, or to fill it how you can?

As Five Wives opens, the five new widows are given their recently deceased husbands’ notes and journals and attempt to piece together the men’s final days; that a tragedy is at the heart of this story is no surprise, but there are many twists and turns as the timeline jumps back and forth between the mid-twentieth century and today. We learn that these men, and their wives (and the sister of one of the men), are evangelical Christian missionaries, members of the poor but pious Plymouth Brethren. We are privy, in a jump to the past, to the courtship of two of the couples, and it is evident that these are all people of deep belief; people who honestly believed that the members of an uncontacted tribe in the Ecuadorian jungle were doomed to an eternity of hellfire if no one brought them the Word of God. Never mind that this was a notoriously aggressive tribe that had murderously repelled other explorers and oil speculators (the name “Auca” is a slur meaning “savage” that was given to this tribe by neighbouring tribes; they call themselves the “Waorani”, which simply means “the people”), these missionaries believed that God set them on this mission and they were prepared to be martyred in the process. As time jumps around, we see these couples setting up homes in the jungles of Ecuador; having babies and learning the local languages and bearing witness where they can. We see how the men lost their lives, how the women react (mostly praising God’s wisdom and waiting for His purpose to be revealed), how the world reacts (there is a huge boost in missionary zeal and offerings to the Plymouth Brethren), and by bringing the timeline up to the present, we get the benefit of learning everything that eventually came to light about those final days in the mens’ lives and can see how contact has affected the Waorani into today. All of these details are very interesting and worthy of a novelistic investigation, and it must be noted that Thomas’ prose is rich and satisfying.

Turned out that Carol had been raised in a garden-variety evangelical church, not as strict as the Gospel Hall. She was aghast that women were not allowed to join in the hymns in Olive and Pete’s assembly. “Well, we can sing,” Olive explained. “But only in our hearts. We contribute through our silence.”

At least two of the women in this story (Betty Elliot and Rachel Saint) had callings of their own, but for the most part, this is the story of five men who believed they were in personal communication with God and the women who, even if they couldn’t hear God’s voice themselves, followed their husbands because they once made a vow to love, honour, and obey. In the present day timeline, we meet Abby – the granddaughter of two of the slain missionaries – and she is modern enough to both reject the paternalism of her parents’ faith and recognise the arrogance behind her grandparents’ mission: just because the Waorani didn’t worship the Christian God or wear clothes or till the land didn’t mean that they didn’t have a civilisation or a culture. And this is where I kind of had a problem with this: the modern timeline with Abby and her father doesn’t go anywhere – I really think it’s just there to give the enlightened take on colonialism – and while a person could say that Thomas was really fair here and didn’t impose her own views, that’s not really true; any secular person reading about this mission today would likely come to Abby’s conclusions without Thomas leading us there (through what Abby says and what the wives keep to themselves), and that would be a more powerful reading experience.

What happened to the missionaries was indeed a tragedy – made more ironic by information that is eventually revealed – and while I'm willing to believe that their intentions were pure and selfless, their mission led to a tragedy for the Waorani people (turns out that the missionaries unwittingly paved the path for the oil companies to get into the jungle after all) and I appreciate everything I learned here. Great research, great sentences, plot quibbles.
Profile Image for Jill.
1,155 reviews1,610 followers
December 4, 2019
Reading about U.S. Christian evangelists for a secular individual feels like reading an anthropological study about an exotic tribe. What the evangelists deem to be courage and martyrdom can be easily interpreted as hubris and colonialism.

So it’s a credit to Joan Thomas that she is careful about taking a point of view. Her fictional book is based on fact: an evangelistic mission to the rainforest Ecuador to save the souls of a “savage” tribe called the Waorani. It is called Operation Auca and suffice to say that it doesn’t go well.

The focus is on the wives of these martyrs—their backgrounds and feelings—which range from “true believers’ who steadfastly believe that they understand exactly what God intends for them to those who are in Ecuador largely because of their love for their husbands. They struggle with grief, doubt, and their own place in God’s universe. And they wrestle conflict with their belief that God always has a plan, wondering why the plan included brutal murder.

In ways, the evangelists are as foreign to those who did not grow up with this fiery zeal as the Waorani are to the missionaries. At one point, Ms. Thomas writes, “Culture is a delicate porcelain. You can smash it just like that. Or…your culture is written so deep in hour bones you can never hope to resist it.” The disparity between Christian evangelist culture and the culture of those who value autonomy and insularity is headed for a collision course long before the missionaries arrive. They believe they are doing God’s work, yet the Waorani don’t want to be “owned” – not by God, not by man. The inability to understand the Waorani in any which way – including their linguistics – highlights the tragedy of Operation Auca.

The book is beautifully written—often riveting, sometimes wrenching, other times head-shaking. I can understand why it won Canada’s top prize. It’s a must-read.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
874 reviews
January 4, 2022
Our book club chose Five Wives by Canadian author Joan Thomas as the book to read in the month of May. This riveting novel was inspired by the deaths of five missionaries who were killed in the rainforest of Ecuador in 1956. FIVE WIVES fictionalizes the story of the women left to deal with the fall-out of their husbands' actions and deaths.

I appreciated the map at the front of the book. A diagram or (chart similar to a family tree) showing relationships would have been helpful.
The idea of this novel is intriguing. The different timelines were a bit confusing and made the story feel choppy. There was no flow to it.
I liked this story and how the author imagined the different characters acting, speaking and thinking. I have never been to Ecuador, but Joan Thomas's descriptions of the land, rainforests and surroundings took me there.

The ending felt a bit rushed and the book seemed to finish abruptly. I wanted to know more and felt the need to research this historical event that took place over 65 years ago. Maybe that was the author's intention.

The deaths of Peter Fleming, 27; Jim Elliot, 28; Ed McCully, 28; Roger Youderian, 31, and Nate Saint, 32, in 1956 made headlines for weeks. I spent hours on the Internet reading newspaper and magazine articles, and looking at photos of the five missionaries, their wives and families. There are even photos of the ruins of the Elliot house. As stated in the Author's Notes, she saw this house when she visited Ecuador.

This novel by Joan Thomas won the 2019 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction. I enjoyed reading it and look forward to reading more by this author.
3.6 stars
139 reviews
October 15, 2019
The story and the writing were very good - but I had trouble with the individual characters and who was married to whom. The book really needs one of those pages with a family tree at the beginning. Also, I really struggle against the evangelical Christian missionary movement. I think they do so much more harm than good to peoples like those in this story.
Profile Image for Marsha.
Author 29 books658 followers
September 10, 2020
This was not an easy novel and it certainly wasn't escape reading but it's one of the most profound novels I've read in a very long time. We're introduced to slices of experience from a variety of people in different times and places but all centered on the 5 missionaries who were killed during their attempt to bring Christianity to people from a remote community in Ecuador. The author brilliantly shows the arrogance of the missionaries' zeal and how those who seek to civilize are the ones in need of teaching. We see the effect "Operation Auca" has on the family of the missionaries, and this effect reverberates through generations. She also strips bare the devastation these earnest five wreak on the very community they think they're saving. And that devastation is like an atomic bomb, destroying everything deep and wide.
Profile Image for Erika.
579 reviews3 followers
October 9, 2019
Part way through the book, I heard that this had been nominated for a GG and I thought, “No wonder I’m not enjoying it.” It’s hardly the story of 5 wives dealing with the death of their missionary husbands because said husbands don’t die until page 240 and really it focusses on 2. A current-day storyline about a movie is thrown in to add to the mess. 2 stars because I finished it.
Profile Image for glenn boyes.
121 reviews2 followers
January 2, 2020
The setting of this book was part of the mega-narrative of my growing up in a church that was "missionary" focused. Set in the mid-1950s, it is a novel based on the true story (written up later in LIFE magazine) of a small group of American missionaries and their families into the rainforest of Ecuador to convert a people who had never had contact with the outside world. The 5 male missionaries were killed in the endeavor, leaving their wives and children to fend for themselves and their struggles to continue on their evangelical mission.

As Sarah Bessey notes:

"It is like The Poisonwood Bible in many ways - fascinating, brilliant, upsetting, terrifying. A word of caution: if you still have that story and its players on a pedestal, this book will be quite disruptive to you but if you've been interested in the decolonizing conversations particularly around missions, religious zeal, the evangelical hero complex, culture, and identity that have been happening the past few years, definitely check it out. I can’t stop thinking about it."
19 reviews
March 7, 2020
This sounded so interesting and promising but uugghhhhhhhh it was a chore that I gave up on. Maybe it gets better but I couldn't invest any more time or energy. The initial character development was boring and hard to keep straight, likely because it was so uninteresting and the writing felt so flat that I didn't care enough to try.
Profile Image for Doreen.
963 reviews38 followers
November 22, 2019
The destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the impact of that devastation on human life on earth have recently been in the news. Five Wives examines the devastating impact of missionary zeal on the people living in the Amazon.

The novel is based on Operation Auca, the mission of a group of American Christian evangelists in the mid-1950s. Their aim was to convert the Waorani, an isolated Indigenous people living in Ecuadorian Amazonia. Five male missionaries decided to make contact and were killed. Among evangelical Christians, the five men were seen as martyred heroes.

The focus of the book is the wives of the missionaries, especially Marj Saint and Betty Elliot, and Rachel Saint, the sister of the team’s pilot. We learn considerable background: how Marj and Betty met their husbands, how Rachel came to be involved in the mission, how the women reacted to the deaths of the men. There is also a contemporary subplot involving Abby, the granddaughter of both Marj and Betty. Abby is not proud of her family’s legacy because of how they “’went to someone else’s country and said to people, your ways are wicked, our ways are good’” (31).

There is a long cast of characters so it is occasionally difficult to remember who is married to whom. A chart at the beginning of the book would definitely have been helpful. Fortunately, the major characters are sufficiently developed that identification becomes easier.

Initially the women are subservient to their husbands. Women aren’t even allowed to sing aloud in church. When the men and their wives have a meeting to discuss making contact with the Waorani, Marj understands, “This is not a meeting to discuss the risks and vote yes or no; this is a meeting to brief the girls. The plan is glorious and complete, it’s an extravagant bird in full flight” (185). The women are expected to accept the plan, even if they disagree and think the men are being hasty. The men think only of the glory that awaits if they succeed and give little consideration to the consequences for their families should they fail. After the men are killed, the women must decide for themselves if they should continue to be involved in the mission.

What amazed me is the single-mindedness of some of the missionaries. They believe that God is behind all events and that even the simplest of things can be God’s message which must be interpreted. Their faith leads to a form of blindness because events which most people would see as warnings are viewed as positive signs from God. When God seems to be ignoring her, one of the wives concludes that “God had a new contract with her, the contract of silence” (331). When the missionaries are killed, Betty views the killing of the men as “’a marvellous indication of God’s love and purpose. It seems clear that God has moved a step closer to redeeming the Auca’” (278).

There is an element of blindness and hubris in the missionaries’ belief in the superiority of Christianity which is even seen in the name they give the Waorani; they call them Auca, a pejorative name meaning “savage.” Non-Christian cultures are seen as valueless: “They always talked of how they would change the Indians, what they would bring to the Indians, but they didn’t think of what the Indians would bring to them” (340). More than one person on the mission wears a “breastplate of righteousness” (315).

Contact annihilates the Waorani and their culture. Exposure to disease leads to deaths. The tribe is restricted to a protectorate (reservation) comprising 8 percent of Waorani land. That land, oil companies are free to exploit so one Waorani says, “’Thirteen days of oil for America ruined Waorani lands’” (350). It is only after Waorani culture has been virtually destroyed that Abby learns about “The hunting taboos that protect certain animals. The songs celebrating the bounty of the forest. The way individuals from clans far away are recognized by their footprints in river clay. The warfare rituals, the sharing rituals” (372). There is such irony in a Bible finally being translated into the Waorani language, “the fulfillment of a dream cherished by three generations of Operation Auca families” (357), because by then only a few elders speak the language and not many of them can read.

The author shows different approaches to Christianization. Betty, for example, asks, “Was it possible to reach people’s souls, and turn them over to Christ, and leave the people otherwise as they were?” and has “a lot of ideas about accommodating the gospel to native ways” (350). Rachel, on the other hand, is totally unbending; she is determined to break their itinerant lifestyle. She wants the Waorani to raise beef cattle so they will give up eating wild meat: “’And anyway, if they live in one place, the game is going to peter out pretty shortly’” (325)!

What is amazing is that the author manages to arouse sympathy and antipathy for both women. Betty is an intelligent woman who questions the way Christian missions operate yet still has “faith that terrible and even bizarre tragedies are planned and carried out by God’” (15). Rachel is a bully who forces the Waorani to live as she sees fit; even her nephew recognizes that the Waorani needed protection from her (350). Yet this same woman raised five boys while she was just a girl herself and had her heart broken twice (130 – 131). The flawed and layered characters are a wonderful element in the book.

The son of one of the missionaries realizes “that his family’s story always sounds better in the US. You tell it there and people are moved to tears” (352). My hope is that people are indeed moved to tears but not just because five men died; the impact of missionary zeal on the Waorani left me feeling devastated and reflecting on the treatment our Indigenous people received.

This book is so timely, perhaps influencing people to think more about First Nations reconciliation. I understand why the novel won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction.

Please check out my reader's blog (https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.com/) and follow me on Twitter (@DCYakabuski).
Profile Image for Allison.
256 reviews41 followers
May 22, 2021
Story is fascinating and while based on fact, does a really convincing job at weaving in mostly fiction. I enjoyed the story and it did definitely make me pause and think about all the wild consequences to human cultural intervention. Obviously not a new topic of thought, but this is a good addition to my mental library re: learning on that topic.

I found the writing a little choppy - well maybe a lot choppy. It was hard to keep a "who's who" mental tally, and the jumping of time was at times confusing for me. I never really got a FLOW to the story; my experience felt interrupted. But the story was good enough to keep me entertained and engaged intellectually.

Profile Image for Ian.
Author 10 books29 followers
March 10, 2020
Joan Thomas’s GG-award winning fourth novel, based on actual events, is mainly set in the 1950s in Ecuador. In 1956, a group of American missionaries set their sights on a group of indigenous people living in the Ecuadorian rainforest with the intention of converting them to Christianity. To this point, the Waorani���s exposure to the outside world was virtually nil. Little was known about them or their way of life other than their itinerant practices and their tendency to defend themselves ferociously against outside encroachment. The Waorani were known locally as the “Auca,” a derogatory term meaning “savage,” and the missionaries adopted this term, calling their action “Operation Auca.” Thomas’s novel begins in the lead-up to the operation, providing background on the participants—all of them very young—showing how they came together, explaining how the plan was hatched and describing the complex mechanisms that finally set it into motion. Thomas’s intricate, detailed narrative is related from many different perspectives, primarily the men leading the excursion and their wives. The common thread running through all of these narratives is the evangelical fervour with which these people approach their mission, their unwavering faith in what they see as God’s plan, and their unquestioning willingness to accept the hardships, dangers and tragic outcomes as part of that plan. Thomas portrays the male leaders of the operation as true believers, driven to serve God in any way they can, willing to risk life and limb—willing, as it turns out, to make the ultimate sacrifice—in order to spread the Word to people they believe will be condemned to eternal damnation without their intervention. The triumph of this novel is the author’s ability to convincingly and without judgment present a mode of thinking that will be alien, possibly abhorrent, to many readers: the belief that everything that happens, without exception, can be interpreted as a sign: a direct communication from God that the believer will use in his or her ongoing search for direction and purpose. It will come as no surprise that Thomas does not endorse or condemn any particular way of thinking. Her characters are sincere and obviously trust that they have been instructed by God to save the Waorani people from sinfulness. But from our modern perspective the ignorance, arrogance and hubris inherent in the evangelical Christian’s approach is also obvious as it is based on the assumption that a way of life that evolved over hundreds of generations and thousands of years—that likely existed before Christ’s time—is inferior—morally, materially, and culturally—to the Christian way of life. In Five Wives Joan Thomas lays out all the information and allows her reader to reach his/her own conclusions. The only portion of the story that seriously questions the purity of the evangelical’s motivation comes in several chapters set in a contemporary time closer to our own. Abby, a young woman whose grandmothers both participated in Operation Auca, and whose father grew up in Ecuador and is a preacher, has strayed from the path of righteousness and is no longer convinced that God is a ubiquitous presence in her life. Abby is a curious and independent thinker, educated and modern in her attitudes, who suspects that tearing down an entire peoples’ culture and replacing it with something foreign to them is neither just nor honourable. The cynical among us will also find him/herself wondering about the role of the oil companies, who in the years following World War II came to covet the Waorani’s territory and in the end got what they wanted. Five Wives is a timely, courageous, dramatically urgent story, written on a grand scale, swarming with fascinating characters, covering large swaths of history that will be unfamiliar to most of us, and seamlessly incorporating the author’s extensive research into a coherent and absorbing narrative. It is richly deserving of the praise and accolades that came its way.
Profile Image for Elinor.
Author 3 books164 followers
June 30, 2021
This was a VERY engaging read, partly because it was based on a real massacre of five evangelical Protestant missionaries in Ecuador, but mostly because of the brilliance of Joan Thomas, who researched and then reimagined their characters. The author really is an underrated force in Canadian literature.

I was so intrigued by these people that I could hardly put down the book, and then spent a long time studying their photographs and reading about historical events (1956, to be exact). My takeaway is a better understanding of missionary zeal, how almost all personal hardship and cultural devastation endured by the missionaries and their subjects can be explained away by the intoxicating, addictive, contagious belief that one is doing God's work.

I actually found myself sympathizing with them even while I was deploring their ignorance. The topic is particularly significant today, when the impact of churches on indigenous people in Canada is so very much on everyone's minds.

I subtracted one star by the fact that the story strayed into the present, which was entirely fictional and much less interesting than the historic events.
Profile Image for Craig Stephen.
Author 181 books43 followers
September 7, 2019
Required reading for those who grew up evangelical

The author skillfully and creatively combines historical fiction of events in the 1950s with an imaginative account what took place in the lives of those affected many years later. The structure, characters, narratives, and quality writing are highly polished. More important to me was the connection to personal experience growing up in the evangelical sub-culture. Ms. Thomas knows and understands that world and its people in a way that few writers today do. If you are now in or came out of that world, you will find this book strikes home. Highly recommended for all readers.
Profile Image for ❀ Susan G.
675 reviews49 followers
May 19, 2021
This eye opening book gives a glimpse into the arrogance of religious zealots who try to "tame the savages" and convert them to a life of Christ. It is based on the true Operation Acua where 5 missionaries were killed in Ecuador leaving their wives and children behind. Although the original 5 couples were real people, the subsequent generations of children and grand children were fictionalized.

Regardless, the impacts on the tribes of Ecuador were devastating, negatively impacting their way of life similarly to the colonialism of indigenous people around the world, including Canada.

The novel is well written, researched, thought-provoking and timely.

Profile Image for Mary Burbidge.
28 reviews22 followers
February 18, 2020
Five Wives is a slightly fictionalized account of a 1956 missionary expedition to convert the Auca people of Ecuador. Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Peter Fleming, Ed McCully, and Roger Youderian, the 5 missionaries sent by the Plymouth Brethren, were killed by the Auca - actually called Waorani - on January 8, 1956. They left their wives and children in the missionary base at Shell Mera. The 5 wives were Marj Saint, Elizabeth (Betty) Elliot, Olive Fleming, Marilou McCully and Barbara Youderian. These 5 women along with the redoubtable Rachel Saint, Nate's sister, are the protagonists of this novel.
The strongest characters are Elizabeth Elliot and Rachel Saint, based on the determined Christians who, in 1958, walked into Waorani territory with Elliot's 3-year-old daughter, Valerie, and lived peacefully with the people, evangelizing and learning the language. There are also two fictional characters, David Saint and his daughter, Abby. In Thomas's story, David Saint has married Elizabeth Elliot's daughter, Sharon (representing Valerie). Their daughter, Abby, is therefore the granddaughter of 2 of the 5 wives and 2 of the massacred missionaries.
This is not a book for those who revere Elizabeth Elliot or the story of 5 Missionaries. The big question here is the morality of missions, especially to isolated stone-age people. Is it really God's will that the cultures of these peoples should be stomped out and replaced by European middle-class morality? What right have the evangelists to impose their religion, their social organization, and their culture upon the people of the Amazon or of anywhere else? Joan Thomas does not explicitly answer these questions; she poses them, and her characters ponder them.

Joan Thomas tells the story of each of the wives from her own point of view. Marj Saint, who runs the mission house in Shell Mera, is the centre of the story. She nurses, counsels, struggles with, and confronts the other women, trying to maintain her marriage, nurture her children, and guide her husband while juggling the constant flow of visitors to the house. She is challenged by the Catholic brother, Fray Alfredo, who has a more practical view of the native people and the possibility of converting them.
The other stories which are given in some detail are Olive's love affair with Peter Fleming, Elizabeth's devotion to God and determination to be a missionary in her own right, and Rachel Saint's obsession with her call to convert the Auca.
Through the 5 wives, we see the selfish, obsessive nature of their husbands' missionary zeal. We also see the delusional, irrational thinking that led to the tragedy. Nate Saint convinces his family and friends that the time is right to begin converting the Waorani by telling them that there was a keyhole shaped hole in the clouds right over the Waorani settlement and that the sunlight seemed to be pointing down into it, like the finger of God. This is seen as a real sign.
The fictional characters give us a sort of frame and a lens through which to view the story. Pastor Dave Saint has been swimming in the missionary soup all his life, but he is losing his grip on his daughter Abby. Both these characters become involved in a project, mounted by the son of Roger Youderian, to make a new film about the mission and the massacre. As a device, this frame did not really work for me. It did not add much to the story or to the structure of the novel.

I loved the women's stories, though, picturing these women of the 1940s and 50s dealing with eating monkey and chewing boiled yucca. If you want to see a bizarre example of that, take a look at the episode of This is Your Life with Rachel Saint: https://youtu.be/fcrRP3blAh0.

If you are interested in the role of Christianity in history; if you are struggling with evangelism in the post-modern world; if you have ties to the Brethren church, then you will find this book thought-provoking and challenging.

Profile Image for Heather Fineisen.
1,143 reviews112 followers
August 30, 2020
In the 1950's, a group of North American missionaries go to the forests of Ecuador to find a group of Indians to convert. Five of the men are killed when trying to make contact. This is the story of the wives, how they got there and what happened after. Based on true events peppered with imagine, the five women are brought to life. Lush location descriptions.. thoughtful debates on God and beliefs. Well researched. An author I'd like to read more of.

Copy provided by the publisher and NetGalley
11 reviews
January 6, 2020
I cannot say I enjoyed this novel. I wanted to because it was about Ecuador, my home now, and because it was written by a fellow Canadian who won the Governor General’s literary award for fiction this year. However it did not hold my attention. I did not feel I got to know the characters well enough to care about them. I felt some distaste for the strong female evangelist, Rachel Saint, and a touch of appreciation for some of the wives, but not enough. They did not come off the page. Nor did the Auca characters for whom I knew intellectually I really felt more sympathy.

The setting did not come to life either. Anyone who has traveled at all in Ecuador knows that the landscape here is spectacular, and yet the only time I felt that magnitude, that magnificence, even begin to come to life was in a tiny part near the end when one of the characters, David, climbs to the top of the bowl which encloses Quito and stands next to a statue of Mary. He realizes that this very high cityscape is dwarfed by the Andes around it. Much of the novel is set in the rainforest, and yet, I do not feel as if I saw its trees, its pathways, its flora and fauna. I did not smell it, feel its humidity, hear its birdcalls... at all. This rainforest is called the lungs of the world, and yet I did not feel that I experienced anything much at all.

One part of me says I should reread the novel, that there is something I have missed. After all it won a prestigious award.
789 reviews7 followers
January 10, 2020
Maybe 4 and 1/2, I had a little trouble remembering some characters and I would have liked more time with some of the characters. That said, the story is morally nuanced and fascinating, and Thomas does not make the mistake of trying to articulate the points of view held by the Indigenous people whom western culture has tried so hard to "save." Instead, she focuses on the motivations and doubts of a group of missionaries who tried to break the spirits of Indigenous people because they thought it was morally right to do so. When we speak about racism and colonialism, we tend to drift toward thinking of cruel potentates whose arrogance and spite combine with their relative political power to destroy others, but we speak less often and less fluently about the blindness of faith and the terrible damage it can do. In particular, Thomas reminds us that evangelism by definition diminishes and eradicates the perspectives and the cultures of other human beings. Where there is no vision, says the bible, the people perish, and Thomas's book makes us see with aching clarity that where there is vision, the people also perish.
Profile Image for Mary Lins.
828 reviews116 followers
November 26, 2019
“Five Wives”, by Joan Thomas, is based on a true story of five missionary families in Ecuador in the 1950s. I don’t want to reveal any more of the plot because it’s one of those stories that is best experienced as it unfolds, and Joan Thomas’ writing skills are amazing at revealing the horrific tale. I consumed this riveting novel in great big gulps.

I suspect that how an individual reader feels about proselytizing missionaries (pro or con), and the ethics of trying to infiltrate “uncontacted” indigenous peoples, will affect their reactions to this fascinating story.

Thomas’ style and talent, along with the extremely nuanced story, arrested me from the first page. She deftly explores these characters and their motivations without judgement, though it was impossible for this reader not to judge them.

Also recommend:
“Euphoria” – Lily King
State of Wonder”– Ann Patchett
“Unconquered” – Scott Wallace

Profile Image for Samuel.
Author 7 books18 followers
April 6, 2020
I grew up in a family that counted the missionaries of Operation Auca as martyrs and "saints" (pun intended). We had Elizabeth Elliot's book on our shelves. Somehow I think this fictional account is a truer account of what happened than anything written by the participants. It's a good read, albeit a little hard to follow in the time and generation shifts.
Profile Image for Melany.
83 reviews
September 28, 2019
Great characters with lots and lots of layers. A jungle setting so wonderfully immersive that when you lift your eyes from the book pages you are astonished that you are in your own house. Religious zealots who think everyone should be like them. And all based on a true story. What’s not to love?
Profile Image for Leah.
129 reviews4 followers
September 6, 2020
This book was an extremely powerful read for me as a granddaughter of 1950s missionaries with similar passions--and a similarly destructive presence in the country in which they "served." I have long struggled with my family's legacy of seeking to convert and assimilate another people (in our case, Indonesians), and fully resonated with a lot of Abby's thoughts, and the distance she felt from her father (my mother was equally religious and a fervent believer in the work her parents had done, long seeking to follow in their footsteps), as well as her hesitant and almost morbid curiosity about the mission. This novel touched on so many troubling aspects of 1950's missionary culture that I've seen in my family and my childhood church, and I personally would have loved to see Abby's character and conflict more developed, but I recognize that may not be the reason the average reader picks up this book, and I truly respect the author's reluctance to write about living people, however fictionalized.

Operation Auca was a dinner table topic in my family for many years, and yet I learned a lot about the facts of the mission from reading this book--details my mother and grandparents never would have found it polite to discuss. It was clearly exceptionally well-researched. I appreciated exploring the different lenses that each of the wives, as well as Nate's sister Rachel, brought to the work. I loved reading about their relationships with each other and their feelings about being in the country, and how they navigated their relationship with God both before and after the death of their husbands.

Despite the ostensible focus on the wives, much of this narrative was about the husbands, just through their wives' eyes. And the woman you get to know the best is not a wife at all, but Nate's sister. Some wives, particularly Marilou, you learn little to nothing about. I would have liked to hear more about Betty and Rachel's experiences living with the Waorani later on; Marj's experience establishing the school and remarrying and moving to Quito; Olive's experiences navigating life upon her return to the United States, particularly given the denominational differences between her and the other women, etc. While it didn't quite end, the story definitely started winding down and ending when the men died. Even a brief epilogue for each woman would have made a great deal of difference to me. But I did enjoy the book tremendously and thank Ms. Thomas for her work in bringing this story to new life and teasing out explicit controversy.

Much, much appreciation to NetGalley and HarperCollins for the eARC in exchange for the review.
Profile Image for Jackie.
53 reviews13 followers
November 12, 2019
I was drawn to this book by the recollection of the story of 5 missionaries killed in Ecuador and Elizabeth Elliot’s book “Through Gates of Splendour”. The characters were celebrities in Christian families ... but now looking at the damage created in the attempt of “saving the savage souls” has been disastrous. I understand what the author was trying to do and she’s a talented writer, but up until the end of the book it was very hard to keep track of the characters and really get to know most of the characters. With the back and forth format of past and present, it was hard to sink your teeth into the story at hand before you were now into a different snippet of another. I see this book won the Governor General Literacy award - and I’m so happy for the WINNIPEG author! Maybe it’s me, But I didn’t find this to be one of the better books I’ve read, in fact, I was left feeling like there could have been much better story flow and character development. I am obviously in the minority but do suggest it’s a book to check out.
Profile Image for prescribed.
251 reviews3 followers
January 24, 2020
Five Wives retells the true story of five missionary families who meet tragedy in the 1950s while attempting to evangelize an isolated indigenous community in Ecuador. This book hits all the marks. It's a page-turner that never loses pace and never sacrifices depth or nuance for suspense. We dip into the minds of several diverse characters and somehow gain empathy for even those who might seem despicable. Thomas critiques with love. If you liked The Poisenwood Bible by Kingsolver you will find this read extremely satisfying. Five Wives is already one of my favourites for 2020.
Profile Image for Kathy Stinson.
Author 53 books72 followers
January 4, 2020
I spent too much time trying to sort out connections among characters to really enjoy this novel, especially when I realized I’d made mistakes in the notes I was making in an effort to keep straight all the names I was encountering early on. There were enough points of view and switches back and forth in time that I never managed to truly engage with any particular character. A shame because there’s wonderful writing here about the place these people inhabited.
Profile Image for Lauren.
1,353 reviews66 followers
December 31, 2019
Spectacular novel about a group of missionary families in Ecuador - based on Operation Auca in which 5 American missionaries were killed by members of the Hauorani tribe. Thoughful, sensitively written, and provocative. A must.
Profile Image for Barbara Carter.
Author 9 books51 followers
February 4, 2021
I discovered this book quite accidently by an online search for a fiction read. Then I borrowed this eBook from the library. It’s the first book I’ve read by Joan Thomas, probably not the last.
What caught my attention is that the book is based on a true story. And that story intrigued me: Evangelical missionaries in the 1950s making contact with the Waorani people in the Ecuadorian rainforest. Five missionary men killed, five wives (hence the book title) and nine children left behind.
What drove the story forward for me was finding out what had happened to those men who were killed, and what eventually happened to the people of the rainforest.
There are a lot of characters in this book. Different times and places.
The author explains in the back of the book about her writing process and the research she did for the writing of this book. The characters in the contemporary chapters are entirely fictional. But the other characters are based on people from Operation Auca. She read biographies and then set those books aside and let the characters develop in her imagination.
On page 88, one of the modern fictional characters say what I feel can relate to …
“What should I be proud of? That we went to someone else’s country and said to people, your ways are wicked, our ways are good? It’s horrible! It’s racist!”
This book is about missionaries believing they are doing the work of God. That these native people are not of God. They believe they are winning souls for Christ.
I was interested to see the world through the eyes of these missionaries who believe that they are doing good in bringing the so-called heathen souls to Jesus.
But who are the wicked ones? I personally feel the ones doing such supposed good are the truly wicked ones.

In the end, as you’ve probably guessed, contact will be made with this isolated tribe and it will change and bring them to modern ways.
Of course, all of this will lead to oil companies gaining access to the Waorani land.

Personally, I once experienced a woman who approached me at my workplace, saying she’d had a dream about me and that I needed to be saved. How dare she, I thought. Someone who knows nothing about me, making such assumptions and judgements about my beliefs.
I truly cannot comprehend this drive to save other people—like there is only one way to God.

But back to the book. This is not a light easy read. And if you have a hard time with chapters jumping around in time and places, this book might not be for you. Otherwise, I enjoyed the read and also learning more about this part of history and what makes some people tick.

I also liked this quote from the book:
On page 89, Chapter 5
Tolstoy said there are only two plots: a man goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town.

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