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In the Company of Angels

By Emily Milner

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.

About Emily Milner

(Poetry Board) graduated from BYU in Comparative Literature, but it was long enough ago that most of what she learned has leaked out. She would like to mention other hobbies or interests, but to be honest she spends most of her free time reading (although she does enjoy attempting yoga). She used to blog at hearingvoices.wordpress.com. For now, though, Segullah is her only blogging home, and it's a good one.

27 thoughts on “In the Company of Angels”

  1. That's impressive, Emily. I have finished the Speculative Fiction finalists and have one and a half novels to go for Historical Fiction, but I doubt that I'll be able to finish another category.

    And I also agree about In the Company of Angels. In particular, I think you are right on when you say:

    "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."

    I think ultimately it's a faith-affirming piece of art, but reading it is going to require a little more trust and work than, say, a Gerald Lund novel. It's good to see, though, that Deseret Book is carrying it even though Farland self-published it.

  2. Thanks, William! I have not reread the finalists I read before they were announced, so that has helped me finish faster than I would have.

    I should have done my homework–I didn't realize Deseret Book was carrying it. That's fabulous. I hope it does well. I also think it's ultimately faith-affirming. Wrenching, but also affirming. I believe that glossing over the moral dilemmas faced by these pioneers would be doing them a huge disservice, minimizing that layer of complexity. Real, round people are more human, and more powerful, than flat people.

  3. My mission involved a lot of walking. Which is fine, except it also caused a lot of foot pain and injuries, some I will deal with for the rest of my life. The days when I didn't think I could even walk back to our apartment I thought back on those handcart companies and I knew there were angels helping me get home too. Their struggle and sacrifice strengthened not only their faith, but the faith of those who followed.

  4. I finished reading "In the Company of Angels" last week and highly recommend it for the reasons mentioned in this post. I was especially impressed with how Farland wrote about faith and emotionally-charged situations. He didn't resort to sentimentality and I was genuinely moved by the plight of the handcart pioneers.

  5. With so may novels published per year, it is hard to keep up with everything. Dave Farland had quite a year, publishing 3 novels.

    The handcart pioneer saga is fraught with so much human frailty, intense faith, the hope for Zion, and so much deep and abiding faith that it will stay with us for a long time.

    One of the joys of fiction is a fine writer's ability to plumb the depths of faith–in God, in men of God, in ourselves. While LDS fiction is not unique in this regard, our writers (I claim ownership) are getting better and better at it all the time.

    I can remember the days when there was no LDS fiction. We have come a long way.

  6. Ooh, I am excited to read this book! I love the story from this conference talk:

    I especially love the quote it shares from a man who had been in the Martin company.
    "The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay, and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Handcart Company."

    Oh, that we would face our challenges in the same way as those noble pioneers! If we could become better at learning instead of complaining and loving our leaders for what they do do right, our trials would truly become blessings.

    I am grateful for LDS authors who make the stories of our pioneers more accessible to us. Can't wait to read this one!

  7. Giggles, I walked and walked on my mission, too, and I thought about the pioneers. It is so good to be able to draw strength from pioneer stories. You sacrificed your health in God's service, and you definitely have something in common with them.

    Angela, Rose, and Tasha, so glad to be able to recommend it. I feel all evangelistic about it right now. As Nani said, it did not resort to sentimentalism, and therefore worked well.

    Dr. Kramer, while I'm not as familiar with past LDS authors, I'm becoming more aware of current authors. I'm always delighted when I read something that not only represents Mormonism effectively, but also helps me understand our unique culture better. _Bound on Earth_ did that for me last year, and _In the Company of Angels_ does it this year.

  8. Thanks so much for this review Emily. I'm extremely impressed that you've read so much so quickly and reading this review had really geared me up for the historical category. I think it's interesting that Wm has read the historical and speculative categories because those are the two I really need to catch up on.

    Ang, you can borrow my book, although in light of this discussion, my guess is that Farland would want you to buy your own copy. :p

    Unlike Emily I still have a ton of reading left to do, so I better get back to it.

  9. I'd love to be able to finish the General category and I'm really interested in Mystery/Thriller and have a soft spot for YA, but I just don't think it's going to happen in time. *sigh*

    If only I had either a much larger discretionary spending budget or lived in Utah and could count on the library, friends and DI.

    What we need is a Netflix for Mormon/LDS lit. I could find $10 a month for that (assuming, of course, I could get 2-3 books a month for that). Either that, or Mormon publishing needs to embrace the $3-5 e-book.

    I should add that there were parts of The Undaunted that I really enjoyed, but I did feel that the historical facts drove the story too much in places and the romance plot was rather predictable. On the other hand, I give Lund credit for the "spiritual" arc of the main character, which was not quite as annoying as I thought it was going to be. That sounds like faint praise. Let me put it this way: I appreciated the gentle subtlety of Lund's approach to the main character.

  10. Wm– I bought a bunch of the books. LMK which ones you need and if I have them (and Emily's done with them), I'm glad to send you a care package.

    But yeah, it's interesting that mainstream books, which are often bigger, average about $5 less for a paperback. The LDS books are pricey!

  11. The Willey and Martin Handcarts left too late in the season with improperly cured wood due to, well, reasons vary, but none of them speak well of the Mormon church. I vividly remember Gov. Leavitt (at the 150'th anniversary of the Brigham Young and company entering the valley (yes, I have an ancestor on that trip)) commenting that those that died on the benighted handcart companies did so because they weren't righteous enough. I just about walked out, but I had a child in the choir.

    This is not a feather in the LDS church's cap, no matter how many ahistorical fictional accounts attempt to make it so.

  12. I heard that address given by Gov. Leavitt, and don't feel that at any time did he suggest that they were not righteous enough. I didn't once hear him utter an unkind or untoward statement about those that suffered through that journey. He showed nothing but admiration toward those that made the journey and those that perished in the attempt.

    I'm going to have to pick up this book and give it a spin. Thanks for the great review!

  13. Djinn, the book doesn't try to make the Church look good. As I said, no one is whitewashed, but all are treated with mercy. It's a careful and brilliant balance.

    This is not an ahistorical book; it's well-researched and very thorough. You are making assumptions without having read it. I suggest you read it before assuming anything else about it.

  14. Fair enough Emily M., I'll look at it. I have not been able to find a copy of Gov/Bro. Leavitt's comments at the "this is the place" sesquicentennial celebrations, but he did, as I vividly recall, put all the blame on those that died during the handcart disaster on their own unrighteousness. Gah. I believe, he quoted this part that you reference: "Captain Willie tells the pioneers that if they have faith, God will protect them from the elements and preserve their lives." I suspect that anyone who finds this sentence problematic should just never post here again.

  15. And now with proofreading!

    Shorter, more likely to be banned (for being an all-around bad person) version: Brigham Young saved money skimping on materials for the handcarts and saved even money by refusing to allow the brand-new converts (most recent converts from Europe) to wait out the winter.

    Then, the deaths were blamed on the personal failings of the individual, innocent, hardworking, decent, faithful handcart pioneers. Whatever.

    Why is this considered faith-promoting? People of good faith make mistakes. My family (at least a large part) moved quickly to Idaho where we didn't get the word that the handcart company disaster was being upgraded from a shameful failure to faith promoting. I still find it jarring, and shame on Br. Leavitt.

  16. I'm deeply sorry about my harsh comments; I shouldn't take it out on you at all. You're all innocent. Making peace with my past now. One… two…three…

    I don't mean to demean anyone who sees this episode differently — thanks for letting me inadvertantly vent; but that speech by Mark Leavitt, including the presence on stage of all-in-white (presumably) dead and unworthy handcart company members hurt me in a deeply personal way. Now, I'm healing. Thanks for this outlet, and forgive me for using badly misusing it.

  17. I'm happy for the healing — but you really should read the book because even your summary above doesn't give the full picture. It's not quite as simple as Brigham Young made the wrong decision. Farland might not give the full picture either. I'll leave that debate to the historians. But he has some very interesting things to say about blame, and I think demonstrate that there was a whole tragic concatenation of things involved — it can't necessarily be easily boiled down to one specific decision or one specific person, but I won't spoil the book for those who haven't read it yet.


    Shelah (and Emily):

    I appreciate your generosity. I actually have a bunch of review electronic files now — I just don't have the time to read them all. What I needed to do was read more during 2009. But then, of course, the issue there is that it's not always clear which books are going to be finalists. I think what I may need to do for the 2010 contest is commit to a category for the year, with at least one out of the way, it'd be easier to get others, especially something like the Historical Fiction category where all the books are looooooooong.

  18. It seems clear to me that the true miracle was that President Young was a actual organizational genius. Really. The faith-promoting part of the trek west is that it ran so very very smoothly–something like 60,000 people crossed the plains without incident. that is a real miracle. Guess the problem is that "things went rather astonishingly smoothy0 doesn't make for a good story.

    So please don't think that I was talking really harshly about Brigham Young. I was, for this one tiny specific incident; but thousands of other non-discussed plains non-incidents — the real miracles — just float by unnoticed.

  19. Djinn, I don't think you understood why I was quoting Captain Willie. I wasn't agreeing with him. It becomes obvious in the book that 1-they did indeed have faith, and 2-this faith was not enough to prevent great suffering. That's the great paradox that we all have to wrap our hearts around, and it applies to so many things today. There are plenty of people who do have faith but still endure major trials.

    I also wanted to talk a bit about this line: "anyone who disagrees with that should never post here again." When you write that you assume that everyone who posts here has perfectly strong, intact, textbook faith, and that's not the case. While we work hard to view life through a faithful lens, we all struggle at different times over different things. I think we also try, though, to assume the best of our leaders and of our faith, and to communicate the testimonies we do have.

    As William mentioned, the reasons for the handcart tragedy can't be boiled down to one specific person. I'm no historian either, but I found Farland's research and ideas on the subject enlightening.

    I hope that you find the healing you seek, so you can be at peace.

    William, I kind of did that this year. I paid attention to YA and speculative fiction LDS authors, because those are my favorite genres anyway. I guessed wrong on a bunch–I read Farworld 2, the 13th Reality 2, Forest Born, The Hourglass Door, the next Alcatraz book, and the Princess and the Bear thinking that all of them had a chance at being YA or speculative fiction finalists. But I did guess right on several, which is satisfying.

    I agree that it would be great to have a kind of Netflix for LDS literature.

  20. Alcatraz gets a little snarky for me, although the books are very clever, and I expected to see Alcatraz there. I loved Forest Born and The Princess and the Bear, though, and was surprised that they didn't make it to the finals.

  21. Emily at 21, I was trying (belatedly,and terribly poorly I admit) to describe my problem with the of the idolization of the Willey and Martin handcarts, the disasters. There were so very many successes.

    Of course there were a cascading series of events that led to the two lone disasters — we're human, after all. But by and large the huge trek west led to such few botched incidents that it was a miraculously successful undertaking Why can't we celebrate the successes? They are truly truly amazing. Truly.

  22. Emily, thanks for the great review. I'm in the YW presidency, and our youth are going on Trek this year. I look forward to adding this book to my preparations.

  23. Cheri, not to hijack the thread… but if you're needing any resources to get the kids and leaders clothed for a Trek, let me know. I'm almost done with a fairly extensive packet of free information that has copyright permissions for reproducing, and I'd be glad to pass it along.


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