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McIlvain, "Elders" (reviewed by Reed Russell) Options · View
Posted: Thursday, April 18, 2013 12:57:49 AM

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Title: Elders
Author: Ryan McIlvain
Publisher: Hogarth (an imprint of Random House)
Genre: Fiction 
Year Published: 2013
Number of Pages: 293
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-307-95569-2
eISBN: 978-0-307-95570-8
Price: $26.00

Reviewed by Reed Russell for the Association for Mormon Letters

Ryan McIlvain has given us a beautifully written novel about love, human relationships and the challenges and complexities of faith.

McIlvain was born in Utah into a six-generation Mormon family but raised in Massachusetts. After serving a two-year mission in Brazil he eventually left the church in his mid-twenties. He has a degree in English literature from Brigham Young University, a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Rutgers University-Newark, a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, and is now pursuing his Ph.D. in literature from the University of Southern California. McIlvain has published in journals including The Paris Review, The Potomac Review, and Dialogue. “Elders” is his first novel.

“Elders” is a glorious debut that T.C.Boyle calls “a nuanced meditation on faith and commitment that has all the intensity of a stage play. 'Elders' is a powerful and deeply moving debut from a gifted young writer.” The setting for “Elders” is Brazil in 2003 – set against the backdrop of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and a growing sense of anti-Americanism. 

At the heart of the novel are two young Mormon missionaries working in the fictional town of Carinha. The book is told with remarkable candor from the viewpoints of the two elders – both struggling with different aspects of their faith. Elder McLeod, an American from Massachusetts, is 18 months into his mission. He is outspoken, burnt out, and refuses to cater to mission politics. Elder Passos, a Brazilian, is uptight, zealous, devout and passionate. He has found comfort and salvation as a convert from charismatic Catholicism to this new religion that has promised eventual reunion with his recently passed mother.

Passos also views the church as a ticket to the states and a BYU education. The differences in these two young men cause suspicion, conflict, and frustration. The challenges of clear communication will resonate with those who have served with mission companions of a foreign culture and language.

The plot unfolds as they attempt to convert a married couple – the beautiful Josefina and her reticent husband Leandro. The visits and lessons with the couple – one anxious to convert and the other skeptical and resistant – open the window into the subtleties and nuances of the mission experience. A multi-faceted conflict ensues as the two confront their own beliefs, demons and doubts. 

Elder McLeod’s father, a Mormon bishop, knowing that his son is struggling, tells him: “Seth, there's nothing special in doubting. Some of my colleagues at the office are devout atheists. I think the real courage is in trying to believe. Doubt comes easy for a lot of people. But do you know what doesn't come easy? Faith. Faithfulness. Obedience. Humility. Self-denial. Self-sacrifice. There's your courage.” McIlvain told NPR’s Terry Gross:“You're told that doubt is kind of the natural state. That's the natural man that the Apostle Paul tells us we need to overcome, and that the more elevated, impressive way of being is the way of faith.”

The process of teaching Josefina and Leandro leads to an ever deepening rift between the two and eventually escalates towards an emotional and violent resolution on the way to the baptism. The story, perhaps, ends too soon and some may find the ending unsatisfactory.

McIlvain, having lived it, understands the quirks, the culture, and the unique languages of Mormon missionaries. He invites us into that inner sanctum and conveys those distinctive terms and traditions in a way that is meaningful to the general audience. 

In a recent interview, McIlvain was asked: Were you ever hesitant about writing on a subject matter that was so personal? His response: “There are moments when you have that little self-censor and you think, ‘people who are very close to you — loved ones — will be embarrassed about this.’ I recently convinced my sister to read the book. That gives you a little bit of pause but you really work hard as a writer to push past that self-censor and try to let the story call the shots. To quote a Mormon hymn, ‘do what is right’ — for the story, I could add — ‘let the consequences follow.’"

There may be some language and frank discussion of sexual frustrations that might cause discomfort with some Mormons, but “Elders” is a novel that is open, honest and carefully written. It should be enjoyed and appreciated by Mormons and non-Mormons alike. It belongs on the same shelf with other outstanding Mormon novels.
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