In Search of Complexity: A Review of Ryan McIlvain’s Elders

Ryan McIlvain’s Mormon missionary novel Elders (Hogarth, 2013) is set in the Brazil Belo Horizonte West Mission in early 2003. I served in the Brazil Belo Horizonte East Mission between 1999 and 2001. Like McIlvain’s missionaries, I spent many long days “hitting doors” and climbing hills to teach people whose interest in our message rarely matched our determination to share it–even when our determination was perceptibly lacking. Also, for more than half of that time, I found myself in situations much like what we find in the novel: a companionship comprised of one American missionary, one Brazilian missionary, and a trunkful of cross-cultural baggage.

I don’t know if any of this makes me an ideal reviewer for Elders. At times, reading the novel felt like time traveling. Once again, I was on the steep streets of Minas Gerais, nursing a grudge against a companion who was himself nursing a grudge against me. The palpable silence. The terse deliberations. The resentful longing for a new companion. McIlvain, a returned missionary himself, captures these realities of missionary life with an accuracy of which only the initiated are capable. His missionaries, Elder McLeod and Elder Passos, are a mismatched pair. McLeod, the junior companion, is the brash, fortunate son of a Boston bishop (think: Mitt Romney in the ’80s). Passos, the senior, is an ambitious convert from the favelas. Both have their admirable qualities: McLeod is earnest, if not successful, in his desire to seek Truth and acquire belief, while Passos works hard and cares deeply about his family. Still, they can’t seem to get along. McLeod’s doubt and immaturity grate on Passos, and Passos penchant for self-righteous posturing and mission politicking annoys McLeod. I don’t necessarily identify with either McLeod or Passos, but I can certainly relate to the tension. I know few returned missionaries who cannot.

Still, the dynamic between McLeod and Passos is well-trod territory in missionary fiction, which seems to depend–addict-like–on the tensions of incompatibility. Most recently, we’ve seen in in novels like S. P. Bailey’s Millstone City (2012), Bradford Tice’s “Missionaries” (2007), and in films like The Best Two Years (2003) and God’s Army (2000). The incompatibilities often stem from differences in commitments to missionary labor or belief in God, Jesus Christ, or Mormonism in general–and these differences alone often characterize the missionaries, making them seem more like types than real human beings. This is certainly the case in Elders, I think, although McIlvain tries hard to draw readers into the inner lives of his characters. Both McLeod and Passos deviate enough from the usual types to claim some complexity, but neither character truly surprises. Readers who are familiar with the tropes of Mormon missionary fiction–and the kinds of Mormon novels national publishers love–will be able to guess how this novel ends soon after it starts. (Those who saw Richard Dutcher’s States of Grace will no doubt see parallels between the two.)

Continue reading “In Search of Complexity: A Review of Ryan McIlvain’s Elders”

Re: The Fob Family Bible, Part II

Note: This is the final part of my review of The Fob Bible, which I began here last week. This part picks up where I left off, which was here:

Within the Mormon context of The Fob Bible, the (pro)creative movement of these “opposite equal” spheres further implies the eternal (pro)creative influence of both male and female Deities over the universe. For if we have a Father in Heaven and if, as Eliza R. Snow reminds us, “truth is reason, [then] truth eternal / Tells me I’ve a Mother there” and that she’s doing more than merely keeping House. Rather, as Nelson’s variation on this theme suggests, she, as represented in the creative power of the moon (which here “lift[s] land” from the earth’s watery void, “set[s] the rain in silver sheets / upon the ocean’s stormy streets,” and places “birds in flight” and fish in the sea) and as the feminine coeval with God the Father, is an active participant in the eternal, reiterative round of creation, a circling “dance” that is more productive of all that is “good,” beautiful, and holy than many of us may care to–or even, at present, can–imagine. Continue reading “Re: The Fob Family Bible, Part II”

Andrew’s Mormon Literature Year in Review, Part III: Poetry and Short Fiction 2008

Wm writes: Every year since 2000, Andrew Hall has put together a Year in Review for all of the major genres of Mormon letters.  AMV is pleased to bring you Andrew’s Year in Review for 2008. The review concludes today with a look at poetry and short fiction. Read the other entries in the series.

Part III: Poetry and Short Fiction

I am aware of two major poetry collections published by Mormon authors in 2008. Neil Aitken’s debut collection, The Lost Country of Sight, won the Philip Levine Prize for Poetry. Aitken, a graduate of BYU, is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California. C. G. Hanzlickek, a judge for the Levine Prize, wrote, “It’s difficult to believe that Neil Aitken’s The Lost Country of Sight is a first book, since there is mastery throughout the collection. His ear is finely tuned, and his capacity for lyricism seems almost boundless. What stands out everywhere in the poems is his imagery, which is not only visually precise but is also possessed of a pure depth. The poems never veer off into the sensational; they are built from pensiveness and quietude and an affection for the world. ‘Travelling Through the Prairies, I Think of My Father’s Voice’ strikes me as a perfectly made poem, but poems of similar grace and power are to be found throughout the book. This is a debut to celebrate.” Continue reading “Andrew’s Mormon Literature Year in Review, Part III: Poetry and Short Fiction 2008”