When I first started Elders, Ryan McIlvain’s debut novel, I thought it would be a book I could relate to on terms of searching for faith. Elders focuses on two Mormon missionaries during their two-year stint in Brazil: an American who struggles with his personal belief in the Church, and a Brazilian who holds on to his faith a little too strongly. A struggle with faith? I thought; that’s me, but with Catholicism instead of Mormonism. Raised Catholic, I’ve spent the past three years or so—years marked by my own struggle with clinical depression—wishing I had the faith I see others have, to the point of romanticizing the Church, in spite of not having attended Mass for years.
Elders is about so much more than struggles with faith, however, and this is what makes this book worth reading (especially since, personally, I finally realized my relationship with religion is much more superficial than any depicted in the novel). It’s about self-identity, and the quest of any twenty-something for an understanding of their identity. Naturally, for those raised religiously like Elder McLeod, the American, or those who have faced hardship and subsequently sought answers in the missionaries at their door like Elder Passos, the Brazilian, faith is a part of this self-identity to explore. But as McIlvain makes clear, it’s also about environment and human nature, especially nation and family.
Elder McIlvain’s identity as an American comes under attack multiple times throughout the novel. Elders takes place in 2003, when President George W. Bush just begins invading Iraq, and the Elder is forced to bear the brunt of Brazilians’ rage against America. These confrontations are sure to put any American reader on edge; sometimes, I just wanted to jump into the book and remind everyone that Elder McLeod isn’t at fault for the President’s actions. In that way, while I did not see myself in Elders in terms of faith, I found that the genius of McIlvain’s book is in the way it does make the reader learn more about her or himself, whether that’s in recognized relation to McLeod’s patriotism, Passos’ class insecurities, or McLeod’s lack of faith, among many other thematic contestants.
Elders McLeod and Passos also both have complicated relationships with their family, McLeod trying to be a son he’s not for his bishop father, and Passos navigating the issues that come with choosing a different religion than the one he was brought up in, and questions regarding the motivation behind his conversion. Desperate for the faith he feels he lacks, McLeod constantly prays “Let me leap,” referring to the needed leap of faith his father once lectured him on. “[T]he real courage is in trying to believe,” his father told him. “Doubt comes easy for a lot of people.”
Near the novel’s climax, both McLeod and Passos reflect on their families, and the loved ones that lie at the heart of their tenuous relationships with Mormonism. McLeod is caught by his father with a Playboy in a scene which sums up their relationship; when McLeod returns from running away in anger and shame, his father runs out to embrace him: “McLeod had never felt his father so close to him before, so urgent. His voice was strange, and his embrace too. They stood in the wet morning grass like that, not moving at all.” Passos dreams of his mother, whose death was the single event that compelled him to accept the Mormon faith into his life. His dream represents the antithesis of the overly-serious scholar he has become: “He was chuckling with the sensation, then suddenly he was laughing, then suddenly, boyishly, he was spinning around.” McIlvain shows his readers how deeply families influence both us and our relationships with faith.
McIlvain is very skilled at showing rather than telling, allowing the depth of his characters and their relationships with each other and their environments to sneak up on you. Early on, he demonstrates the way the Elders are growing closer with a simple yet perfect image of synchronized spontaneity: “Passos yelped, and McLeod too, like coon hunters, and instead of opening their umbrellas they took off running, downing the street at a sprint, laughing the whole way.” The image of two young men laughing as they run in the rain is almost cliché, but McIlvain’s use of “coon hunters” as a descriptor indicates the writer’s ability to pinpoint the exact imagery he needs at that moment.
Elders is certainly a book about human nature, with McIlvain’s talent lying mainly in his character development. The prose is stark and basic, and while well-written, there are very few moments where the prose itself transcends the page and presents itself as a piece of art. But at times, the characters, their situations, and their reactions affected me so much tears would be brought to my eyes, in sadness for their shortcomings, and frustration at only being witness. Elders is a moving read, and its refusal to present a perfectly happy ending, and instead only one of half-hearted, wounded hope, is appropriate for its realistic representation of human nature and faith, in all of their faulted, desperate, angry, and hopeful glory