There’s a glut of certain characters and societies in fiction. Like novels about 60’s dissidents and serial killers and rich New Yorkers and mid-life-crisis men. And then there are other people and places and cultures that go completely untouched.
Growing up Mormon it seemed like our lifestyle was completely absent in fiction. LDS writers either wrote fiction that had nothing to do with our culture or wrote so specifically to our culture that the world at large couldn’t enjoy it.
Elders by Ryan McIlvain is the first book I’ve ever read that is obviously written by a Mormon but not for a Mormon audience. And luckily it’s fantastic.
I’m really interested to see how this novel will be received. Missionaries, those clean cut young men in their white shirts, have always been a curiosity. In the Church they tend to be idolized. And I’m unsure how LDS readers will feel about reading about the companions they’ll meet in this book.
There’s the American, McLeod, a type some may recognize. He’s not exactly a reluctant missionary but he’s serving mostly because it’s expected of him. There’s the Brazilian, Passos, a relatively new convert who has left his struggling family behind for his religion. They’re at odds in almost every way: their beliefs, their culture, their class, their background.
They begin teaching a woman, Josefina, whose husband isn’t enthusiastic about the church. It’s a familiar situation but Josefina’s potential baptism becomes a lightning rod for the companions and potentially the thing that will drive them apart.
I didn’t serve a mission. But I know hundreds of people who did. So much here rang true to me. The way they talk when they have religious discussions in particular is done well. (You have to be right on with this stuff. There is a very distinctive style to this kind of talk. When I watched Big Love, they’d get it right about 60% of the time and the rest it would irk me to no end.)
And as someone who went on a very long and difficult struggle with my faith, the struggles of these two young men who have to be emissaries of a religion they are still learning was something that captivated me.
This was one of my 5-star reading experiences. I found the book really well written, which is certainly enough to give 4 stars. 5 are reserved for books that hit me in a way that the others don’t. And this one did. I’m really excited that this book exists.
I don’t know if this book will find its place. People who aren’t religious tend to avoid reading about religion. And people who are religious don’t tend to go outside their own comfort zone. But I hope that non-Mormon readers will find a culture here that’s new and different that they didn’t know about and see some real human struggles. I hope that Mormon readers can overcome the fact that these are flawed and imperfect characters who make real mistakes that are usually kept quiet and not talked about. Both kinds of readers have so much to enjoy here that I hope they can get over those potential fears.
Thanks to Hogarth for providing me with an advanced e-galley of Elders.