Why Joan Thomas wrote about the wives of missionaries killed trying to convert Ecuador's Waorani people

The novel Five Wives won the 2019 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction.
Joan Thomas is the author of Five Wives. (HarperAvenue, Bruce Thomas Barr)

In 1956, five evangelical Christian missionaries were killed when they ventured into the Ecuador rainforest to convert the Waorani, a group of Indigenous people who had no previous contact with the outside world. Five Wives fictionalizes the story of the women left to deal with the fall-out of their husbands' actions and deaths, which were widely covered by the media.

Joan Thomas's novel won the 2019 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction

Thomas spoke to CBC Books about writing Five Wives.

Inspired by a true story

"I knew this story as a child because my parents had two memoirs written by one of the main characters in this book. It was considered a very inspiring story in our church. It was about five Christian missionary families from the U.S. that went to Ecuador with the goal of converting an un-contacted Indigenous people. They called them the Auca, but they were the Waorani.

"They had a reputation of reacting with violent attacks to any incursion into their territory, but these [missionaries] felt that they had been called by God. When the five men did enter the territory, all were killed. They left their wives and nine little children. Eventually, some of the women stayed and succeeded in doing what the men had failed to do. They did make peaceful contact with the Waorani. 

I was profoundly critical of them and I still am. But I think we're kidding ourselves if we think we are so enlightened.- Joan Thomas

"When I came back to the story as an adult, I was interested in looking at it from a contemporary and secular point of view. Whereas the Christian church writes and talks about it as a story of martyrdom and sacrifice, I was interested in thinking about the effects of this incursion on the Indigenous people. I don't write from the point of view of Indigenous people, but I was interested in how the missionaries understood their role. I was profoundly critical of them and I still am. But I think we're kidding ourselves if we think we are so enlightened. We all live in our own bubbles. We're all benefiting from the resource exploitation of the Amazon. I didn't want to set myself up as being so profoundly different from them."

A timely story

"I got drawn back into the story in 2012 when I read an article in The New Yorker about the politics of oil in Ecuador. There was a class action lawsuit on behalf of Indigenous people. When I read this, I wondered if some of those people were the same Indigenous people that the missionaries contacted.

"I found that not only were they the same people, but that the missionaries had very deliberately brokered a deal to have the Ecuadorian government move the Waorani into a tiny protectorate — about eight per cent of their land — so that the rest of the territory was free for the oil companies. It was a direct act of economic imperialism. I realized there was a whole other side of the story that I didn't know anything about based on the way the missionaries had written about it.

"The New Yorker story was the catalyst. The story continued to grow in resonance for me with the political situation in the U.S. We're all aghast at how these notions of the other are so prevalent. Canada is not immune to it, though we'd thought we had moved further ahead as a society in our understanding of diversity and cultural imperialism. It strikes me as so ironic that Christian churches are embracing Donald Trump and his policies on the southern border of refusing refugees, yet, they're still sending missionaries to the countries that these refugees come from."

Waorani Indigenous people demonstrate against the exploitation of oil in their territory with a banner reading, "The forest is our life. No more oil," outside the court building in Puyo, Ecuador, on April 11, 2019. (Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images)

Visiting Ecuador

"I went to Ecuador twice to do research. I stayed in Indigenous eco-lodges and visited two of the homes the missionaries lived in. One of the houses has been turned into a museum and the other is falling down in the rainforest. I talked to missionaries there and Indigenous people. The day we went into the house that was falling down in the rainforest was very moving. Our guide was a man who was about 70 years old.

"As a small boy, he had worked for one of the missionary's wives — for Elisabeth Elliot — and he remembers very well when her husband was killed. He took us up a path and into a glade where their house was. There were bats hanging from the beams of the roof. There was a little tree growing in the toilet. He spoke so movingly about his connection with them. I was trying to understand their point of view and the ideological bubble they lived in.

"I said to him, through a translator, 'How did you feel about them going into the rainforest to contact the Waorani?' He said, 'It was a good thing. The Waorani needed to know about Christianity.' He had clearly been converted, but it was moving to see his connection with them. It allowed me to be more empathic [toward the missionaries].

"I didn't want to encroach on what the Waorani story was and what the Waorani experiences were. The missionaries had a relationship with a Waorani woman who left the rainforest. Her story about why she left her people is fascinating. I did do some writing about it, but I ended up taking it out. It's a challenging situation because it means there's silence in that book regarding the experience of the Indigenous people. But I was committed to staying within the mindset of people with whom I identify. It was challenging to tell that story, which is inevitably a little bit lopsided."

Photo taken in Shandia, Ecuador, outside the Elliot's house. Thomas's guide, Alberto Grefa, worked for the Elliots. (Submitted by Joan Thomas)

Joan Thomas's comments have been edited for length and clarity. You can read more interviews in the How I Wrote It series here.