A story of faith and doubt, a study of two young men’s struggle to navigate a forced, brief, intensely personal relationship, and ultimately a look at what we think makes us good and what really shows us to be good; Elders by Ryan McIlvain is a character study, so close-up it hurts, of the dance we do as we try to navigate those around us even as they echo our own weaknesses.
Elders takes place on the dusty and seemingly silent streets of Brazil, where Mormon missionaries do the thankless work of knocking on unanswered doors day-to-day. Elder McLeod is anything but a model Mormon: he’s had questions about the faith and its beliefs in the past, and he’s happily nearing the end of his time in Brazil. As if by a test from God himself, Elder McLeod’s new companion (Mormon missionaries work in intense twosomes, they are forbidden to ever leave their companion’s side) seems to be his foil: Elder Passos, a converted Brazilian who is fired up about the church, is immediately enforcing regulations, preaching enthusiastically, and getting under Elder McLeod’s skin.
Having heard of the book from a friend, the summary of the plot didn’t sound that intriguing. Such a character-driven rather than plot-driven book, especially as a first novel, sounded possibly dull or bogged down with each character’s introspection. Once I gave the book a chance, I found this wasn’t the case at all. McIlvain chronicles the emotional struggle of each character with such intensity that this was a hard book to put down, more so than any plot-based thriller. Rather than over-writing and letting the words get in the way of the story, McIlvain seems to have written just enough to make his characters become fully realized and no more.
This book has been dropping onto and off of my radar since its release in the Spring of 2013. I grew up in Utah, in a suburb outside of Salt Lake City, but I didn’t belong to the dominant LDS religion. One of my elementary school teachers brought in pictures of her mission to share with us her experience, and the question “What ward are you in?” became a normal one for me to hear and answer. To furrowed brows and pursed lips, I would explain that my family wasn’t any religion. At a sleepover in my pre-teens, several of my best friends tried to give me a Book of Mormon. They didn’t even need me to read it, they explained earnestly, with their big, concerned eyes gazing into mine. Cornered against the side of a pink and blue quilted bed while we all lay akimbo on swishy sleeping bags, I pushed the book under the bed once the subject was changed, where its fate remains unknown to me.
My parents certainly didn’t realize the extremism of the Mormon religion in Utah before we moved there, and I think I can safely speak for them in saying had they known we wouldn’t have made the move in the first place. Once I left Utah, wide-eyed at California’s huge freeways and city streets, I began to realize what a bizarre experience living in Utah as a non-LDS kid had been. When people ask where I’m from, I immediately follow my “I’m from Utah” with a “But I’m not Mormon,” as the expected follow-up question. I laugh at recognizing restaurants, slang, and culture from the TLC show Sister Wives, and tend to check out books pertaining to the religion as I feel I have an intimate, if outsider, knowledge of its pervasiveness in some areas of our country. By no choice of my own, my own story became enmeshed with the story of this religion.
After reading only a few pages of the Elders, my question was, is this author Mormon? The answer is on the book jacket’s back flap, on McIlvain’s author bio: “Ryan McIlvain grew up in the Mormon church and resigned his membership in his midtwenties.” Elders must have been an intensely personal book for the author to write, and it manages to resonate as such. I can’t wait to see what comes from McIlvain in the future.