31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on November 4, 2011
I read almost all of this book in one late-night sitting. I got up the next morning and finished it. I was pulled in somewhat by the personal identification I made with it, but mainly because of the crystalline story-telling. It just kept pulling me along, but in such a limpid, natural fashion, that I didn't even realize how late it was. That's for the literary side of it--it's beautifully written.
From a content perspective, the book is one of the few (if not the only) published accounts of missionary experience that I have read that is absolutely spot-on. I was out on my mission to another South American country at the same time John Williams was out. Being an American plopped down (with very little real preparation) into those fragile political situations during the Reagan years is something that I've never seen described. Williams evokes it without making a big deal of it. I was plunged right back into that affect in a really authentic and pure way.
As for the account of being a missionary, it's spot on to the experience. I appreciate that he does not deride or ridicule his former self (which would certainly be easy, twenty-some years later); at the same time, he doesn't sacralize the experience--except to the extent that human relationships and human suffering in and of themselves are holy ground. When I came home from my mission, the imperative (all but unspoken) to only express the "faith-promoting" when telling about the mission experience was a huge burden. When I got home and tried simply to tell the truth about my time on the mission, I was met with active hostility from other members of the church. In some ways, it made me actually lose touch with what was positive about my time in South America. Because I could not really honestly tell about the difficulties--the physical challenges, the church bureaucracy, the numbers crunch, the cultish aspects of mission life, the sexism that I experienced in a very concentrated form--I found over time, that I was also unable to connect with what was positive in that experience. It wasn't until I was discussing my mission with others in a non-mormon context, where I knew I would not be judged if I spoke of the full spectrum of my experience, that I realized that there were many things from my mission that were precious to me. They just weren't necessarily the things that the approved narrative ("best two years of my life") point out as being precious. It wasn't until I could tell the WHOLE story to someone that I realized that I'd lost touch with all of it, by squelching part of it.
I think John has done a huge service to former missionaries, whether they want to acknowledge it or not. He completely respects the experience in all its aspects. And by so doing he completely respects those who have been through it--both the good and the bad.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on October 19, 2011
John gave a copy of his manuscript a few years ago to get my feedback. I never served a mission, so I wasn't sure what to expect from a book about that experience. I probably expected stories of spiritual witnesses or of young kids doing stupid things to relieve stress. And those are both in there. But there is also the uncomfortable story of a boy trying to serve his church in spite of severe personal hardship, and soldiering on, day after day, to reach his goals. Some of the stories are surprising, some of them are shocking, and every story makes you turn the page to see the next.
If you buy this book, do yourselves a favor, and set aside a whole weekend to read it. You'll need some uninterrupted time.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on October 23, 2011
Having served an LDS mission myself, the stories in this book rang very true. My mission (in the United States, not Bolivia) was very different than John's, but I know many former missionaries that served in Latin America and John's stories match theirs.
But, the key to this book is the story of growing from boy to man. From not understanding the language to being fluent. To being lost in a strange land to being at home with people he didn't even know existed two years earlier.
Additionally, it was a fun, light read. I never felt bogged down and every time I said, "I'll take a break at the end of this chapter," I was pulled into the next chapter by the narrative.
Thank you, John for sharing your personal experiences with us all. Well worth the time to read.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on April 7, 2012
For a normally verbose person, oddly I don't have adequate words to describe my reaction to this book. But I'm going to try, awkwardly.
My mission was, bar none, the most difficult experience of my life. And, at various times, I've had a lot of challenges in life. I was in a horrific marriage for 15 years, the victim of a near constant onslaught of verbal and emotional abuse. I've been through very serious health challenges with each of my three children. I'm now helping to raise my son's daughter after his marriage collapsed and he got primary custody of the baby. I'm not listing these things in the expectation that these experiences made my life harder than anyone else's, because I think we all face our challenges, make serious mistakes, and grieve. I'm listing these things to no one suspects that my overall life must be really easy, if I view my mission as the most difficult thing I've ever experienced.
No. The fact is that missions are really, really hard.
The difference between these life challenges and a mission was that, in some ways, I could, at least momentarily, escape some of these problems, even if it was just by going to work every day. I had another life, a different life, outside of the sometimes all-consuming problems of the day.
There was no such escape as a missionary. I think that is what made it so grueling, and even unique in my life experiences.
My mission was different than John's. I served in southern France, the Toulouse mission, which has gone in and out of existence since then. I had running water, no parasites or huge spiders. But I also had next to no baptisms, like every other missionary there. I knocked on doors for the bulk of my mission. Most of those doors were rudely slammed in my face. I don't blame the French for disliking us or being rude to us. Since most of them live in apartments that are easily tracted, and there are lots of JWs in France, they must get disturbed on a regular basis by the religiously obsessed. And there was much about France that I loved, and I met some really interesting, kind, and generous people. I will never forget the couple who actually had a nice house and every year would let all six missionaries in the city use it for Christmas, as they were going out of town. They cooked us a huge, lovely dinner ahead of time and left little treats. It was the best day of my mission. One of my greatest hopes is to return to France after I retire, for a long, extended visit.
But the fact is that my mission was utterly demoralizing. It would take an extraordinarily strong ego, or sense of self, to withstand being sworn at and having doors rudely slammed in your face all day long, ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week, and not become demoralized. Even worse was how we were treated by visiting GAs, who seem to view it as their mission to berate and browbeat us into being better missionaries, and somehow, despite the failures of all the faithful before us, find all the noble spirits just waiting for The Truth, just waiting for us to find and baptize them.
The fact that I believed in the church as strongly as I did made it even worse, because my failures to teach and baptize (with the exception of two young women who immediately went inactive, so I heard) felt like immense spiritual failures. Ammon had enough faith to single handedly convert an entire Lamanite population, along with chopping off arms right and left, and I couldn't even find someone to listen to one discussion. Literally, we had weeks without even a discussion. In a good week, we'd have three or so. I knew a sister who was viewed as THE hardest working and most faithful sister in the entire mission, and she didn't have ONE SINGLE baptism her entire mission.
I think I was clinically depressed on my mission, had I had access to a mental health professional for such a diagnosis. At one point, it got so bad that I developed a form of agoraphobia. I couldn't stand to leave our tiny one-bedroom apartment. Every time we got on our bikes to go tract, I would start weeping uncontrollably. After about almost two months of being so incapacitated, I finally was able to function again.
I remember, at one point earlier in my mission, looking at myself in a mirror and wishing suicide could be a possible end to it all. But I believed that if I committed suicide, God would be so angry at me that He'd probably punish me by making me be a full-time missionary for all eternity. So not even suicide offered an out. That was around the time I packed my bags and told my companion I was going to the mission headquarters and demanding to be sent home. It didn't work. I was "assigned" to the mission president's wife for three days and she browbeat me into staying, by telling me I'd be a spiritual failure my entire life if I gave up and went home. I did believe in the church, and the thought of condemning myself like that was too much, so I stayed. Miserable, but there, knocking on endless doors.
I've often wondered what my life would have been like had I not served a mission. I learned some valuable things in my mission. I doubt I would have ever had the opportunity to live in a foreign country for 18 months otherwise. And that's a good lesson for Americans. We tend to be very egocentric, I think because our country is so large we can travel for days and be around people who may be a little different than us, but still understandable. In Europe, you could travel a few hours and be in a totally different land. It's good to understand that, while there is a common band of humanity that unites us all, there are other, sometimes large, differences that are due solely to culture. Americans are not the world. We are who we are in large part due to the culture in which we swim.
But I learned a lesson that I think also harmed me later in life. I learned that I could buck up and tolerate misery for a greater good. That's why I stayed in a truly horrific marriage as long as I did. I though the "greater good" was keeping my temple covenants by staying married, no matter how miserable it was. That was a harmful lesson, because reality is that sometimes change, and giving up, is the only sane solution.
So, at the end of it all, and even 30 years later, I ask myself, "So what did we end up doing?" And, like John, I answer "I don't know. I don't know."
Read this book. You won't regret it.
Thank you, John, for sharing it with us. It sounds funny to say I still need some healing thirty years later, but in a way I do, and, in a way, your book did that.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on November 10, 2011
My first experience hearing John's mission stories came while he, my brother, and I all sat around the campfire on scout campouts with our boys. We all served missions to Bolivia between 1978 and 1985, so we all had similar stories to swap about the good, the bad, and the scary times we had while serving there. As many others have noted, I could hardly put down this book until I had finished it. The book is a wonderfully honest account and well written prose; while reading, it felt as if we were all there sitting by the fire again recounting our experiences; it made me laugh and cry, some times at the same time! Thanks, John, for putting down on paper such an honest and open portrayal of mission life in Bolivia! I loved it!