Review: David Farland’s _In the Company of Angels_

This review was originally written for and published on the AML-list (Association for Mormon Letters), dated July 14, 2001. Subsequent list discussion follows review.

In the Company of Angels by David Farland is a
moving story, told through the eyes of three historical characters: James Willie, the handcart company’s captain, Eliza Gadd, the agnostic wife of a faithful British convert and a mother with several children, and Baline Mortensen, a Danish child, sent ahead to America by parents who feared persecutors in Denmark might target her. The storyline is familiar: The 1856 Willie Handcart Company gets a late start on their westward journey. Traveling with poorly constructed carts made of green wood and without sufficient provisions, these Mormon pioneers suffer horrendous losses as the weather and terrain turn against them. Salvation comes via a massive rescue effort,  launched from Utah by Brigham Young immediately upon his learning of the  company’s plight. Farland overcomes the foreknown plot with top-notch  characterization. Readers—especially LDS readers—will respect Eliza Gadd, whose pride both drives her away from acceptance of the Mormon gospel and propels her to travel west with the Mormon converts. Likewise, readers will give their  hearts to Baline, the spunky and kindly young girl who voluntarily works—and  suffers—as much as any adult on the journey.

However, thecharacterization of James Willie is, in my eyes, the most remarkable and memorable, the element that exalts this book above the traditional fare of faithful Mormon novels. It is also the characterization which is most likely to put off some devout LDS readers. Willie, the company’s captain and priesthood leader, is presented as a flawed man. But not flawed according to the school of Gerald Lund, who tends to conveniently craft a character’s weakness as his strength. Willie’s flaw is more real-world; it is his stubborn exercise of a faith that borders on arrogance. It can be painful to read about Willie’s certainty that God will stay the storm and provide for the physical needs of this band of traveling Saints, knowing God will, in the end, do no such thing.  That said, Willie’s flaw is not so much misplaced faith but that his faith has a tragically limited scope. While Farland leaves room for readers to reach their own conclusion about Willie, he depicts the company’s leader as a hero who learns the hard way that faith is complicated, that sometimes trusting  in God means submission, not protection. Farland’s rendition of Captain Willie is a triumph which places In the Company of Angels squarely in the “edgy” category of LDS fiction. Serious students and serious writers of serious MoLit are advised to read and study this aspect of Farland’s novel.

But usually where there’s meat, there’s also some gristle. This is the point where I should give a spoiler alert, or issue a warning that I’m about to discuss the ending of the novel. Theoretically, though, this isn’t possible because I can’t spoil an ending that doesn’t exist. For a reason I cannot fathom, Farland chose not to write this story to an appropriate conclusion. In fact, he leaves both the survivors (literally) and the readers (figuratively) out in the cold by not taking the Willie Handcart Company into the Salt Lake Valley. For that matter, he doesn’t bring the bulk of the rescue party to them. Rather, he leaves the sick and freezing survivors at a mass grave beside a camp, only aware that full rescue is pending. Considering how many times the characters had their hopes dashed along the way, plotting an end that isn’t the end of the journey, but only the hope of the end of the journey, is more than unsatisfying. Its  disastrous.  It’s like ending a “true” football movie before the winning touchdown, or a film about the Triple Crown before the final lengths are run. It makes no sense. I cannot know what the author was thinking as he put the final period to his manuscript, but I suspect that, because the final chapters of In the Company of Angels are emotionally charged, Farland mistakenly thought the gravitas of these final scenes would be enough to overcome the expectation his readership has of seeing these Saints arrive in Salt Lake. He was wrong.

To be fair, Farland does use his Afterword to provide biographical sketches of the historical characters and, through it, he explains to readers how the lives of the actual people played out. But an Afterword is not a functional part of a plotline. Traditionally, it is an explanation of how the book came to be. While the sketches are very interesting to read, Farland’s reliance on them to finish out the plot is something just shy of negligent.

Still, in spite of its problematic non-ending, In the Company of Angels is a valiant, emotional re-telling of one of the most moving chapters of early Mormonism. I rooted for these characters, hoped not only against all odds but against historical fact that things would go well for them, and I cried with both joy and sorrow throughout. This is a novel that bravely sets out to paint a harshly realistic picture of events. Punches are not pulled for the sake of delicate Mormon sensibilities. It is well worth a reader’s time and deserves its status as a Whitney Best Book of the Year. Certainly, the novel’s glitches do not cancel out its triumphs, and I encourage Farland to continue bringing his edgy side to Mormon fiction. I consider it a must-read in Mormon historical fiction. Just plan on reading the Afterword as if it were part of the main plot.

Reader/Reviewer Discussion, posted to list 7.14.2001:

Wm Morris: I think is a fantastic review, Lisa.

And I completely disagree with your take on the ending. It was the right
place to end it. The primary tension is resolved with the knowledge that they
are saved. Almost everyone who reads the novel is aware of what happens after
that. Once the uncertainty over their fate is resolved for the characters
themselves, there’s no need to keep going with the narrative.
Name Pending Permission

WM, thanks for the compliment.

Audience is key here. I considered discussing that about the novel. If Farland only hopes for Mormon readers, then your argument has legs, though I think wobbly.
Very wobbly. But let me stick with audience and save the exacting details about
wobbles for another time.

You are right. Mormon readers do know what happened to the Willie Handcart Company, but who else does? Unless its some 5th grader who just finished a unit on westward expansion in their elementary school, not many do. There is evidence
in the text suggesting  Farland did not intend this novel to be solely for Mormons. For instance, at one point he interjects his authorial voice and explains what a priesthood blessing is. He wouldn’t do that if he only thought he was writing for Mormons. Here’s the paragraph:

A blessing was a ceremony performed by Mormon men who held the priesthood. Just as Christ had healed the sick and raised the dead in his day, men who held the priesthood would lay their hands upon the head of the sick and call upon God to heal the person. (107)
If you’re going to say all his readers know what happens to the Willie Handcart Company, I think you’d have to say they’d all know about priesthood blessings. He wasn’t writing only for Mormons and therefore would have been foolish to assume everyone knows what happens to the Willie Handcart Company. Why write the Afterword in the manner he did if he was relying on everyone already knowing? (Of course, I don’t think he needs this kind of explanation at all. Its Tell, not Show. Show your non-member audience what a blessing is. They aren’t stupid. But that, too, is another discussion. And one I’ll be addressing some at within the next day or so.)
I understand that those familiar with the story may be okay with the ending, and you are right: it is because they already KNOW the ending. At the conclusion of the novel, I, for one, am not satisfied that I’ve seen the full arc of Eliza’s character, particularly in light of the suppositions Farland makes about her in the Afterword. If Farland is going to make the assumptions he makes about her, he should bother to write it out. Wow. Think of the emotion he missed there by not taking her story to completion. If its powerful in exposition in the Afterword, it would/could/should be over-the-moon good written fictionally.
I believe if he’d written the “proper” ending, even the readers who know
the ending would be happier. Of course, we’ll never be able to prove readers
would like the story better if it were written out because that ending wasn’t
written. There’s no comparison to make between the two. But like I said, would
audiences have liked the movie Secretariat more if the movie ended before they actually saw the horse win the Belmont? Everyone knows he’s going to win. But we all know it wouldn’t be the best ending of a film.
Again, the book is strong and shouldn’t be missed. But I stand by what I wrote. And I love David Farland, Dave Wolverton, or any other incarnation he takes on at a later date. But he made me want to scream on this one. So I kinda did in this review. 🙂
Lisa Downing

1 Comment

Filed under Reviews and Critiques

One response to “Review: David Farland’s _In the Company of Angels_

  1. Lisa: I spent a long time pondering the ending, and certainly would have liked to go on to Salt Lake, but that in itself was problematic. Why? Because the journals all fall silent after Rocky Ridge. Levi Savage was too ill to write. The Danish chronicler died. The camp chronicler was half frozen. So the information stream dried up.

    For some readers, they wanted more “fiction than fact,” interesting sub-plots and so on. I considered that, but knew I’d anger those who wanted more historical accuracy. As it is, for every author who wanted more fiction, probably ten have wanted me to chronicle the facts more. Even though this isn’t a history, they want to know where I got information, what sources I’m citing. I decided early on not to fall into that trap. I have one author of faith-promoting works who is livid at my depiction as it is. She can’t believe that an apostle would make a bad call, for example, and so had devoted a lot of effort to trying to destroy my credibility. Yet of all the incidents in the book, that’s the EASIEST thing to verify!

    So I decided not to make up events. Even at the top of Rocky Ridge, things get wobbly, and I’ve heard from some that the trip into Salt Lake was so nasty and tragic that . . . good taste prevents us from following much longer. Readers wouldn’t want to hear about the problems with dysentery, which really became a terrible epidemic..

    The second problem that I ran into was length. I wanted to write a 100,000 word novel. The one I’ve got has 175,000 words, and was considered “too-long” by my LDS publisher, which caps novels at 100,000 words. So I’d already exceeded my limit. My publisher passed.

    To be honest, I would have loved to have started the novel earlier, too–beginning with the persecution that was going on among the Danes and in England, but that would have taken another 75,000 words.

    So it gets all long and complicated as to how far it goes. I do think that the Aferword works as a conclusion to the story, and really was the best choice, and here;s why: When you look at the lives of each of the characters in the books, their stories don’t all conveniently wrap up in one place. Eliza’s might wrap up at her baptism a week after the event. Levi Savage’s story wraps two years later when he’s vindicated by Brigham Young. Jens Nielsen eventually names his daughters–years later–after Bodil Mortensen’s best friends. Bodil’s mother goes mad and dies. In some cases, the importance of their stories come out in the lives of their grandchildren! Then there are some people, like Captain Willie, that sort of just quietly seem to wander off in retirement.

    To try to wrap up each of those characters and encapsulate their stories would have required me to violate POV, or, barring that, create really dumb scenes where a couple of old-timers talk about, “What ever happened to. . ..?”

    So I had three alternatives, and I decided to end it as I did because, well, it seemed to work best for me!

    Thank you so much, Lisa, for the great review!

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