REVIEW: Five Wives by Joan Thomas

I hardly know what to say about Five Wives. I didn’t love it, I didn’t enjoy it, but I certainly admired it. What a magic trick Thomas pulls off here! She takes the true story of five American missionary families in the 50s – people who embody to me colonial arrogance, cultural insensitivity and misguided self-righteousness – and somehow makes them interesting and complex, even sympathetic. How does she do it?

Her research seems very solid of course, but more than that, her very fine intelligence, her attunement to the spirit of the times, and most importantly, her open-mindedness somehow make it all work. And the novel’s saving grace (irony intended) is how the missionaries’ evangelical certainties are questioned in the second generation and outright rejected in the third. There’s a quote from Wade Davis in the Author’s Note — “Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you” –- that I think can be read both as a judgment on the so-called “martyrs” of Operation Auca, but also as a warning to the reader, not to judge these people by the standards of the present day.