Orson Scott Card said that his historical novel, Saints, was a “love song to my people.” Full of fiery characters debating quintessential Mormon dilemmas against the backdrop of a historically-charged time period, it was a ballad that delighted and disturbed both mainstream Mormon readers and OSC’s readers who subscribed to other faiths. David Farland’s In the Company of Angels (which I received a complimentary review copy of), is an effort in a similar vein–exhaustively researched, unfailingly plot driven, surprisingly modern in its attitudes, full of an apologist’s love–and will probably give readers similar moments of delight and disturbance.
Farland chooses to tell the story of the Willie handcart company through the eyes of three of the company’s most historically grounded members: Captain James G. Willie, educated non-Mormon British immigrant Eliza Gadd, and guileless Dane Baline Mortensen. Rotating through the three character’s perspectives Farland brings to light not only the struggles of the destitute handcart pioneers but struggles central to the adoption of the LDS faith.
Captain Willie, as Farland recreates him, struggles as leader of the handcart pioneers when temporal concerns (fresh water, food, weather) don’t bend to his spiritual authority. As much as Willie wants to get his pioneers across the plains before winter sets in and lives are lost, what he really wants is to keep their faith in God intact. When faced with a massive storm and nowhere to hide, Willie doesn’t pray for the elements to be tempered so that the company can avoid hardship but so that the non-member Eliza Gadd will become a believer. As the trek continues and apostles glide through in comfortable carriages leaving only inspirational speeches and broken promises Willie’s own testimony comes under fire. He asks himself, is it okay to doubt the words of an apostle? Is the seemingly cursed trek and the ever-rising death count really God’s will? Are all trials evidence of sin? Why does God let bad things happen to good people?
Eliza Gadd’s spirituality acts not only as a catalyst for Captain Willie’s questioning but also as an entry point for modern readers who may not be able to comprehend why the handcart pioneers set out at all. As the only non-member of the company Eliza isn’t afraid to point out the strangeness of polygamy and other Mormon beliefs or the heavy reliance on charismatic leaders in place of logical thinking. And while her overall character arc seems a little forced, she poses probably the most important question for a modern reader: does asking questions make a person essentially unfaithful? Is there a way for a “thinking person” to accept an essentially non-rational religion?
Baline Mortensen is everything Eliza Gadd and Captain Willie are not. She doesn’t doubt, question, or over-think. She prays for guidance and acts on her feelings, convinced that even though she is only ten years old she is powerful enough to be angel to others in the handcart company and speed them to Zion. It is Baline, however, who ends up paying the ultimate price for her faith. Captain Willie suffers severe frostbite and loses his pride. Eliza loses her husband and several children. But both survive the trek and both receive spiritual boons. Baline–who pulled cripples through mudbeds and gave up her ration for a best friend with dysentary–freezes to death while searching for firewood in a snowstorm and gnawing on her own knuckles to stave off starvation. She is the ultimate Saint, consecrating her all and lending substance to the somewhat frightening idea that a true religion requires its people to sacrifice everything.
In the Company of Angels is at turns inspiring and gruesome (Farland doesn’t flinch at details of Indian attacks or rampant disease) and will likely offend some readers. Other readers will be offended by the book’s frank discussion of the personal failures of priesthood holders. Also, it is not without flaws: the characters lack subtlety and there are times the prose could use finessing. The book is self-published and there are sections with quite a few typos. But In the Company of Angels is clearly the work of a man who has grappled with the dilemmas of a faith-based life and loves his religion and will therefore resonate with many readers. In writing this novel Farland has secured himself a place with Mormon literary mainstays like Gerald Lund and Orson Scott Card and In the Company of Angels will likely be widely read and appreciated.