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.
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.
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)
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.