By Joan Thomas
HarperAvenue, 400 pages, $25
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The Winnipeg Free Press Book Club, in partnership with McNally Robinson Booksellers, is pleased to welcome award-winning Winnipeg novelist Joan Thomas on Monday, Jan. 25, as she reads from and discusses her most recent book Five Wives.
The book, published in 2019 by HarperAvenue, is a fictionalized account of events leading up to the deaths of five Evangelical Christian missionaries in mid-1950s Ecuador, as well as the ways in which the missionaries’ widows and extended family coped and persevered in the aftermath.
The missionaries’ goal had been to connect with an Indigenous Amazonian community they called the "Auca" (from the Quichua term for "savages"), bringing the teachings of the Bible from the United States and converting them to Christianity. The Free Press review called the book "an engrossing, thoughtful read, and a fresh testament to Thomas’s narrative powers — and her ability to locate a human pulse under the often-deafening drumbeats of religious and cultural tradition."
That narrative power in Five Wives helped Thomas win the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction in 2019. Of the book, jurors of the prize said "Thomas’s tale provides a nuanced examination of Operation Auca... This book raises important questions about religious fervour, autonomy and legacies of violence. Ambitiously conceived and beautifully written, this book is a masterful achievement." The book was also a finalist for the Margaret Laurence Award for fiction and for the McNally Robinson Book of the Year prizes at the 2019 Manitoba Book Awards.
"This book felt risky — it’s a sensitive subject, and I’m just so grateful people are reading it, that it’s starting conversations, and that people are responding so positively to it," Thomas said in a Free Press interview shortly after her Governor General’s award win was announced. "I’m thrilled that people want to read it, to understand it and talk about it. I’ve had incredible emails from readers already. What delights me is that people are saying ‘this book is riveting — I couldn’t put it down.’ Normally I get the response that my books are stylistically engaging, but not so propulsive, necessarily."
Thomas made a name for herself as a novelist early on her career; her 2008 debut novel Reading by Lightning, published in 2008 by Goose Lane Editions, won the Commonwealth Prize for best first book as well as the Amazon.ca First Novel Award. Her 2010 follow-up Curiosity, published by McClelland & Stewart, was nominated for both the Giller Prize and the International IMPAC-Dublin Literary Award.
Her third novel, 2014’s The Opening Sky, was also published by McClelland & Stewart; it won the McNally Robinson Book of the Year award at the Manitoba Book Awards, and was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for fiction. Shortly after the publication of The Opening Sky, the Writers Trust of Canada awarded Thomas the Engel/Findley award, presented to a mid-career writer for their body of work.
Thomas will read from Five Wives and discuss the book with Free Press books editor Ben Sigurdson and Chris Hall of McNally Robinson on Monday, Jan. 25 at 7 p.m. via livestream. Copies of the book are available at McNally Robinson Booksellers. For more information, see wfp.to/bookclub.
HarperAvenue, 400 pages, $25
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