Five Wives revisits the stories from the author’s youth

Governor General Literary Award winner shares writing inspiration

Joan Thomas won a 2019 Governor General Literary Award for her novel Five Wives.
Supplied by Joan Thomas

Author Joan Thomas’ award-winning novel challenges the lessons she was taught as a child. 

Thomas’ novel Five Wives is a recent winner of the Governor-General Literary Award. She spoke with The Journal about her experience writing the book and where her inspiration came from.

Her book follows five missionary wives whose husbands die while ‘on duty.’ While the women are based on real people, her book is a fictionalized account of the experience. One of the people the author details is a woman she’s been familiar with since she was a little girl. Her name is Elizabeth Elliot, and she was a writer who discussed various incidents of missionary men dying. Thomas had these books in her home when she was growing up.

“The whole chain of events, the death of the five men, was very much enshrined in evangelical churches in the 1960s and 1970s,” Thomas said. “They were regarded as martyrs. There would be missionary conferences and people were encouraged to become missionaries to take the place of the men who had died.”

Thomas reflects on the reputation of these missionaries who were celebrated and honoured as an example of a good evangelical Christian.

“It was a celebrated chain of events in the church where I was growing up […] the women were unanimous in believing it was God’s will.”

 Decades later, Thomas moved away from her religious upbringing. Then in 2012, she read a New Yorker article about the politics of oil.

Specifically, the piece discussed a class action lawsuit against Chevron for failing to maintain environmental standards in Ecuador. This reminded the author of the stories she grew up hearing—specifically one about a group of Christian missionaries in 1956 who entered a rainforest in Ecuador to evangelize the Waorani, a group of people indigenous to the area. 

It reshaped her perspective and triggered her journey of “deconstructing things [she] once thought were true.”

After reading the article, Thomas recognized the timeliness of the events it chronicled.

“We’re seeing the results of people living in very narrow, ideological bubbles in our politics—the playout of the attitudes that the missionaries had towards Indigenous people. We’re seeing another version of that in the othering of people at the southern US border. The way refugees are demonized reflects the way the missionaries looked at these Indigenous people,” Thomas said. 

Throughout five years of research and writing—including two trips to the Ecuadorian rainforests and hours of reading missionaries’ and missionary wives’ memoirs—Thomas felt compelled to tell this story.

“I really wanted a contemporary frame so that I could look a little bit at the legacy of […] our thinking today,” she said.

Thomas approaches her story from the perspective of the five missionaries’ wives, structuring her book, in a sense, into five separate novellas.

This narration style gives the reader an idea of how little power these women had to make their own decisions. We hear very little from each woman, but with their stories stitched together, the five perspectives form a cohesive narrative. 

“These women promised to obey their husbands. The husband takes commands from God and you take commands from your husband. But the women are complicit in their own ways. They are not helpless victims of their husbands’ whims.”

Five Wives isn’t a black-and-white story: it’s a nuanced picture of complex human experiences. It tells the tale of the missionaries’ “masculine adventure” complemented by the wives’ points of view facing incredibly high stakes. The women, surrounded by their children, are aware of the risks of their situation and must decide whether or not to go along with their husbands. 

Thomas deplores the actions of her characters, but she also gives them as much humanity and believability as she would to a person she loved.

“I tried to enter them very intimately and authentically, and trace a way of thinking that I think is somewhat universal,” she said.

Thomas’ interest in the evangelical missionaries and their wives’ stories lies in the power of their narratives to connect with readers—even when their beliefs and lives are so contrary to our own.

“I read all of their books and then let [the characters] walk into my imagination with the personalities that they had assumed when I was reading,” she said. This was also where she took pleasure in her own work.

“That was the most gratifying part of writing—how real they seemed to me."

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