I was turned onto Elders after hearing an interview with author Ryan McIlvain on the radio. The topic of the novel fascinated me: Mormon missionaries doing service in Brazil. Yes, the novel is about members of the Church of Latter Day Saints going door to door in a mid sized Brazilian town. I really did not understand the distribution of Mormons throughout the world until I read this. I thought the movement was a largely North American phenomena focused predominately in Utah. Not so.
Throughout the novel the protagonist, Elder McLeod, struggles with his faith (all Mormon missionaries are referred to as Elder). He comes from a prominent Boston Mormon family, but is not as convinced of his religiosity as those around him. Added onto this is the overwhelming sense of anti-Americanism Elder McLeod experiences in post 911 Brazil. These pressures compounded with a zealous missionary partner propel McLeod to make some questionable decisions. In fact, Elders is very much a coming of age novel about self discovery.
As much as I was fascinated by the topic of the novel, my over all feeling was that it fell a little bit flat. That may be because I had built Elders up in my head after hearing the interview with McIlvain on the radio. It is an okay read, certainly not a waste of time, but I was expecting amazing. The main characters are well drawn out, though some of the secondary ones are predictable and flat. The internal and external conflicts McIlvain encounters are wide ranging and interesting: from issues of sexuality and sexual expression to being American when America is not the most popular nation on the block.
Who would like this book? I was attracted to Elders because of the insight it gave into the modern, international world of Mormonism. In recent years there have been a spate of books dealing with Mormons, but most of the deal with the more extreme forms of the religion and the plight of women (see Amity and Sorrow). Elders stands apart from those as it deals with more mainstream Mormonism in a cosmopolitan world.