Published by: Hogarth
Published on: March 5, 2013
Page Count: 304
My Reading Format: eGalley provided by the publisher through Edelweiss
Available Formats: Hardcover and eBook
Related Review: I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits
Elder McLeod is a young American Mormon missionary in Brazil. He is in the home stretch of his two year commitment to his church and his parents, but he has failed to rise in the ranks of his fellow missionaries. He did not become a missionary because of his own deep, personal faith. He took up the challenge as an “experiment on the word” after discussing some romantic difficulties he was having with his father who was also his bishop. Now he is with a new senior missionary partner named Elder Passos. Elder Passos has a reputation for being extremely devout and the thought of partnering with him makes the few remaining months in Brazil feel like a prison sentence to Elder McLeod. With the added pressure of being the token American at a time when war is declared, the time had come for Elder McLeod to either embrace his journey or to stop pretending and just go home.
Elder McLeod hasn’t even been to college when he embarks on his mission to Brazil. Prior to leaving he has been dabbling in what his devout father would consider heresy and he made a wrong move with his girlfriend that had him off kilter. While his parents desperately wanted him to go, he wasn’t in an optimal place to convince anyone to become a convert to anything, let alone Mormonism. This was very interesting to me. As an outsider looking in, I had viewed Mormon missionaries devout, diligent, and absolutely dedicated to their message. I hadn’t given their age or their past any thought whatsoever. I assumed the goal was to gain converts to the Mormon faith. Reading this book broadened my perspective. While gaining converts is certainly an objective, perhaps it’s not the only one. Sharing one’s faith with countless strangers, no matter how sincere one might be at the beginning of the mission, could very well help cement a young man’s faith along the way. Living in close quarters with another Mormon peer and being responsible to and for each other can be very powerful. Positive peer pressure can work wonders. When it doesn’t, the consequences can be cataclysmic.
Not only did Elders highlight the life of a Mormon missionary, it addressed the receptions of Americans abroad and how that impacts their own personal reasons for traveling. Without a doubt Elder McLeod would have been targeted as a scapegoat for the frustrations of the Brazilian people because he is a Caucasian American. That his religion is seen essentially as an American religion only serves to make matters worse. I had recently finished reading Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk prior to Elders. I hadn’t expected to make thematic connections between the two. It was an unexpected gift that enhanced my reading experience.
When I began reading Elders, I was expecting an intelligent, well-written look at Mormon missionaries. Ryan McIlvain’s novel more than lived up to my expectations. Just as Anouk Markovits did in I Am Forbidden, McIlvain wrote about the faith of his upbringing with openness, honesty, and dignity. While individual religions have their distinct practices, both novels highlight just how similar aspects of human religious experience are. When one struggles with doubt and disbelieve or fights to follow one’s faith, the actual institution is of lesser importance. As McIlvain demonstrates so very well, it is the individual’s inner trials that are most powerful. I picked up Elders because I was curious about Mormonism. What I took away was so much more.