Elders by Ryan McIlvain

eldersI 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.

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Amity and Sorrow by Peggy Riley

amityandsorrowI didn’t think I was going to read Amity and Sorrow. Not really what I’m into at the moment, is what I thought. Though I am interested in religion and cults I was concerned that this was going to stray into the territory of bonnet lit (Amish and Mennonite romances) given the cover illustration of the North American edition (the UK edition has a very different cover). I must admit, however, that Amity and Sorrow was not half bad.

Amity and Sorrow are sisters on the run with their mother Amaranth from their father, the leader of a cult-like Christian sect, reminiscent of hard core Mormons. Due to an unexpected accident they end up on a farm in rural Oklahoma. Until now Sorrow has always acted as her father’s Oracle and resists their move. She is also prone to arson and believes that the end of days will come in flames.

Overall, first time author Peggy Riley does an astounding job or portraying what life would be like for a teenager leaving an insular cult and finding herself out in the unfamiliar world of men. Unfortunately this is somewhat undermined by Riley’s portrayal of Amaranth, who is both still under the thrall of her charismatic husband and his arcane rules and only too ready to jump into bed with the farmer who takes them in. Amaranth’s character and the story as a whole would have been stronger and more compelling if she had not given into her desires so effortlessly.

Who would like this book? I suspect Amity and Sorrow is going to be a big book this spring and summer. It will undoubtedly be marketed as a great book club pick: focused on women’s experiences with enough controversy to spark good discussion. It reminded me of David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife, which depicts the estrangement of Brigham Young’s wife in the early days of Mormonism. For research Riley relied quite heavily on Under the Banner of Heaven by noted journalist Jon Krakauer, which is a fascinating account of Mormon fundamentalists in the United States and Canada. Also out this spring is Elders by Ryan McIlvain, a novel dealing with Mormon missionaries in Brazil.