Book review: 'Elders' novel is about missionaries in Brazil

Published: Saturday, May 25 2013 1:00 p.m. MDT

ELDERS,” by Ryan McIlvain, Hogarth Books, $26, 293 pages (f)

There’s no contesting that serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is challenging and has its difficulties along with the joys of teaching those who accept the gospel.

As a returned missionary reading “Elders” by Ryan McIlvain, it’s difficult to know what McIlvain is trying say about missions in his debut novel about a companionship in Brazil. McIlvain served a mission in Brazil but has since left the LDS Church.

Set just a couple of years after Sept. 11, 2001, Elder McLeod, born and raised in Utah, has been out three-quarters of the two-year mission assignment. He is struggling with his testimony as he continues “experimenting on the word” and combating other challenges, including his sexual desires.

His new senior companion and zone leader is Elder Passos, a Brazilian who joined the LDS Church as a teenager just after the loss of his mother. He’s worried about his brothers and grandmother, but also wants to be a good missionary, yet has his own demons to contend with.

The story picks up at the beginning of their companionship when an international soccer tournament starts and no one is answering their doors. Told from both of the missionaries’ perspectives, only Josefina invites them in and is excited to learn about the gospel and wants to be baptized. While her husband, Leandro, also listens to the lessons, he isn’t as interested.

McLeod and Passos try to work together and do best when things are going well with the lessons for Josefina and Leandro. Things are at their worst when a drunken Leandro accosts the elders and McLeod takes the brunt of many of the Brazilians’ opinions of the United States’ invasion of Iraq.

Their time together tests their testimonies, beliefs, love, loyalties and ability to forgive.

There’s no doubt about the strength of McIlvain’s writing and his ability to breathe life into what could have been a stale series of missionary recollections.

However, McIlvain’s characters seem to embody many, if not all, of the stereotypes seen in missions, including McLeod, the loud, sloppy American content to be a junior companion, and Passos, the Brazilian who is a zone leader after about a year out who is hoping a mission will springboard to education in the United States. Even the “Dear John” letter McLeod’s Missionary Training Center companion receives (in the form of a wedding announcement) seems a bit over the top.

There are also other events that would seem a bit unbelievable in just about any mission, like a mission president conducting all of the baptism interviews.

There are other events, like knocking on a door and hearing a voice say that no one is home, that likely many missionaries can relate to.

Those looking for a faith-promoting story about missionaries overcoming their challenges need to keep looking.

There is occasional swearing throughout, along with the admonition to “keep it Bible,” and sexual descriptions.

If you go ...

What: Ryan McIlvain book signing

When: Wednesday, May 29, 7 p.m.

Where: The King's English, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City

Web: kingsenglish.com

Email: rappleye@deseretnews.com Twitter: CTRappleye

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