The Next Chapter

Governor General's Literary Award-winning author Joan Thomas explores faith and empathy with novel Five Wives

The Manitoba novelist spoke with Shelagh Rogers about how a real event in the 1950s Ecuador inspired her latest work.
Joan Thomas is the author of Five Wives. (HarperAvenue, Bruce Thomas Barr)
Listen16:35

Joan Thomas is a novelist based in Manitoba. Her novel The Opening Sky was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction in 2014.

Her latest is Five Wives. The novel is based on the real-life Operation Auca, an attempt by five Evangelical Christian missionaries from the United States to bring Christianity to the Waorani people of the rain forest of 1950s Ecuador. The men were killed after making contact with the group, leaving their wives and children behind to struggle with faith, doubt and a list of what ifs.

When Thomas was a little girl, she learned about Operation Auca from the books her devoutly religious parents had in the house. Five Wives fictionalizes this real-life account as we meet five families devoted to God and zealous about their mission — yet oblivious to the harm they brought on themselves and the people they were intent on converting.

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

Operation Auca

"This story has been with me for a long time. I was captivated by the books my parents had around the house about Operation Auca. They also had a lot of pictures and I was moved by the images of these happy families. It was a story that galvanized and horrified me. It also inspired me because these missionaries were presented as heroes for their willingness to sacrifice everything to obey God. 

This story has been with me for a long time. I was captivated by the books my parents had about Operation Auca.- Joan Thomas

"Shortly after the killings, one of the wives was commissioned to write a memoir about the incident. When I read that memoir today, I can see how she shaped the narrative into a story that was eagerly embraced by supporters of Christian missions in North America. She told it as a story of martyrdom, that God had led the men and that this was all part of his plan."

Novelist Joan Thomas, a former Berton House writer in residence, talks about winning a Governor-General's award for her book Five Wives. 7:43

God's plan

"These missionaries saw themselves as being motivated by love. They wanted to take the story of Jesus to these Indigenous people. They saw them as eternally doomed because they had never found salvation through Christ. They believed that this was an altruistic mission to go in and share the gospel.

In researching the novel, it made me re-examine the word 'uncontacted.' The Waorani people had defended their territory for centuries.- Joan Thomas

"In researching the novel, it made me re-examine the word 'uncontacted.' The Waorani people had defended their territory for centuries. They were never conquered and they reacted with extreme violence to any incursion into their territory. And yet the missionaries saw themselves as exceptional. They felt that God had called them and that God would certainly protect them."

Respect for others

"I really wanted people to look at the legacy of this kind of thinking about Indigenous people such as the Waorani. We'd like to think that this is behind us and it's long ago, but you see the same kind of rhetoric when you look at today's evangelical foreign missions.

I wanted to explore how it shapes our thinking today... where people are demonized and looked at as the 'other.'- Joan Thomas

"I wanted to explore how it shapes our thinking today, as we're confronted with terrible situations at the Mexico/U.S. border where people are demonized and looked at as the 'other.' 

"We have not changed as much as we think we have."

Joan Thomas's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.