Friday, April 25, 2014

Fiction | The Battle Between Faith and Doubt


Pop culture just loves to pick on the Mormons. Our cultural oeuvre is full of exaggerated tales of this group that dramatize stereotypes and controversy: Big Love, Sister Wives, David Ebershoff’s bestseller The 19th Wife, and Carol Lynch Williams’ YA thriller The Chosen One. Of all the many portrayals of the Mormon church out there in the realm of literature, Ryan McIlvain’s debut novel, Elders, is probably the tamest. His is a refreshing perspective that focuses on its characters rather than controversy.

Elder McLeod and Elder Passos have been paired together as they near the end of their two-year mission in Brazil. They’re pretty much nothing alike. Elder McLeod is American, outspoken, emotional; Elder Passos is Brazilian, obedient, and devout. As they spend their days spreading the word throughout their community, knocking on door after door, their beliefs and behaviors often clash. They finally find common ground–and start to actually get along—when a beautiful woman and her dubious husband agree to listen to the Elders’ message. As they confront the couple’s questions, though, the Elders have to face their own conflicts and doubts.

The two characters in this book are very well drawn. They contrast off each other perfectly, but McIlvain gives enough detail and history to each that the reader is given insight into the reasons for their opinions and actions. There are a lot of factors in play in this story; McIlvain addresses several themes and sources of conflict.

First, we have religion and McLeod’s and Passos’ own reasons for belief or doubt. Passos lost his mother as a teenager; religion was his source of comfort and guidance during his formative years—the place he found answers and the reassurance that his family would one day be reunited. McLeod grew up in a religious household; his father is a priest [is that the correct term?], and the religious path was expected of him, rather than one he found for his own reasons.

Then we have culture, and here McIlvain adds a compelling deeper dimension to the story of these two missionaries. Set in 2003, just as the US as invaded Iraq, Elder McLeod encounters the harsh anti-American sentiment felt strongly outside US borders. And Elder Passos, on the other hand, serves as that critical eye on that heritage and worldview that comprises much of Elder McLeod’s identity.

McIlvain presses these heavy themes on his young characters that are already questioning their place in the world as they mature from boys to men. I think the writing was excellent, and the author’s ability to affect his characters with both internal and external influences was mastery level. Overall, I thought this book was written very well with just an okay story. I didn’t really like either of the characters, but I appreciated the non-issue approach of the subject matter. Go here for superlative writing, but don’t expect a gripping plot.

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