I’m almost done reading the Whitney finalists! Exclamation point because thirty books is a lot, and while I’ve enjoyed it, it will feel good to be done with the last one. Shelah and I are going to talk more about our favorites in a couple of weeks. You can also visit Shelah’s blog for her Whitney finalist reviews. Today I want to focus on one of my favorite finalists, In the Company of Angels, by David Farland. I spent the weekend crying over it, wrapping my mind around its dilemmas, feeling humbled by the sacrifice of these handcart pioneers.
Farland tells the story of the Willie Handcart company from the perspectives of Captain Willie; Eliza Gadd, a non-Mormon traveling with her Mormon husband and family; and Baline Mortensen, a young girl sent from Denmark to travel in the company without her parents.
I love the way that David Farland embraces the moral complexities inherent in Willie handcart story. Good leaders make foolish choices, other good people follow them anyway, and many good people die as a result. Farland doesn’t whitewash any of the players in this story, but he is merciful in his characterization as well. I came away with a greater appreciation of their strengths because I was allowed to see their weaknesses too. For example, Captain Willie tells the pioneers that if they have faith, God will protect them from the elements and preserve their lives. But because I know the ending, his hopeful words are laced with irony and pain. As the story progresses he serves the people of his company selflessly, and comes to realize and weep over his share of responsibility for their suffering.
I am still thinking about this book. I’m wondering about why miracles happen, and when they happen. The handcart pioneers were promised miracles by Captain Willie and by Franklin D. Richards, and some of them happened. Not enough to prevent horrific suffering, though. Not enough to keep many from dying. And yet most of them emerged on the other side not bitter about the bad counsel that led them to journey, or resentful of their own faith, but grateful for the miracles they did see: the arrival of the rescue party just in time, the angels who kept them going at the very end, through the wintery Wyoming mountains.
I don’t believe that God wanted this to happen. I don’t think He desired so many of His saints to suffer. In the Book of Mormon the Ammonites are willing to be massacred again, and yet the Lord tells Ammon, “Get this people out of the land, that they perish not.” While He allows suffering, and honors it, I don’t think He delights in it. I think the tragedy was a result of eager, naive human error, not divine design.
But He has consecrated the sacrifice of these handcart pioneers to great good, because we still remember and honor their journey. Farland’s book is a powerful, honest account. It is exactly the kind of story that overcomes my pioneer story fatigue and makes me feel grateful that the handcart pioneers are part of our Mormon heritage.
In the Company of Angels is available through Farland’s website. There’s a Kindle edition at Amazon as well. I have also requested it at the Orem library, which has been great at getting many other Whitney finalists, so I hope it arrives there soon. Sensitivity rating: a very little mild swearing, a couple of gory descriptions, reference to rape. Nothing that felt gratuitous to me.