Angel of the Danube
Alan Rex Mitchell
Andrew R. Hall
Cedar Fort, 2000. Trade paperback:
Suggested retail price: $12.95 (US) 1998 AML Award: Marilyn Brown Novel Award
I read Angel of the Danube over Christmas break, and wasgetting ready to hunker down and write a review when Ruth Starkmanposted hers a couple of days ago. Good, I didn't want to write a longthing, explaining the main premises of the book. You can get thatfrom her. But I'd still like to add my two cents.
First of all, it is a fun read. (You may notice that is a theme in myreviews. Dullness, no matter how lofty the purpose, is death for me.)Mitchell brings back the taste and feel of missionary life marvelouslywell. I think my mission, in Japan, had some key similarities toMitchell's Vienna. Both were urban, with four-Elder apartments, andlots of getting together with other missionaries living not far away.You have a kind of group camaraderie in those situations, which canrelease companionship tensions. Those called to more isolated areas,with just their companion around and not much chance to get away,would have a more claustrophobic experience, I think. Whoops, sorry,that was a tangent. Anyway, these missionaries are a hoot. JerryJohnson wrote in his Deseret News column that he feared the novelwould rub people the wrong way because it is anti-authority. I don'tthink it is, or if it is, that isn't a big part of it. (There is oneannoying AP, but he is just annoying, not because he has authority.)They aren't so much anti-authority, as just goofy. Like the God'sArmy missionaries, but a little more extreme, using nicknames, goofingoff, taking unapproved trips, blowing up small bombs, etc. (Okay, thebomb went beyond goofy, but it really doesn't come off as being thatbad, trust me). I'm afraid that goofiness is what will make somepeople mad, and not like the book. People who were put of by theGod's Army pranks/jokes would blow up over this book. (But thenagain, how many people were really put off by God's Army?)
Hmmm, all that didn't come out right. Goofiness isn't a central partof the book, I shouldn't have started with that. I just meant to saythat this is a fun book to read. There is a lot of good-naturedhumor. The main character is, which I think almost any 19-year oldguy would have to admit, a very cool guy. We would all have loved tohave him as a companion, and so it is fun to read about him. (Somemay disagree, but I don't think most guys would if they thought backto your 19-year-old selves. Women, I dunno, I can't predict yourreaction, especially if cocky Californians are not your thing.)
Mitchell does a great job with the "voice". The entire first-personstory is told in a California surfer-dude patois. I thought it mightget annoying at first, but it never did. In his review, Cracroftcompared it to the narrative voice of Huckleberry Finn, and I thinkthat is about right.
One of the best parts of the novel is the use of folktales. Themissionaries are constantly hearing the tales from their Austrianfriends, and they tell them to each other (and to investigators) toillustrate their points. Okay, it is a little far-fetched that thesemissionaries would appreciate these folktales so much, but it works inthe context of the story, and it gives it a lot of heart. It would begreat if missionaries understood the culture around them so well thatthey could use these kind of folktales. It's funny, in some ways itis very realistic (especially the missionary's tough times), and insome ways it isn'ft at all. Like magical realism, perhaps (sorry, Imay not understand the term that well, but I have read some of it).It never gets that unhinged from reality, but the way the missionariesuse folktales, and the epiphanies that Monroe has, it kind of has thatflavor.
As well as the camaraderie and folktales, Mitchell shows usmissionaries who are trying very hard at something about which theycare deeply. They are helped by the Spirit at key times. They carefiercely about the members, investigators and each other. We seeElder Monroe come to respect and love a companion he wanted tothrottle for a long time. It is full of positive moments, withoutever becoming sentimental or cloying. Everything moves along at avery nice clip until the final quarter, when Monroe has returned home.There things stall a bit, which I suppose fits his life, which alsohas stalled. For the first time the situations become a little trite.But things wrap up nicely in the satisfying last chapter.
Angel of the Danube is my favorite piece of missionaryliterature I've read so far. Well, at least since Bela Petsco'sNothing Very Important. Compared to God's Army (which Ithought was great) it is much more realistic and intellectuallysatisfying, although perhaps it has a little less heart. (I haven'tread Benson's Into the Field yet, that probably would be the mostsuitable novel to compare it too.) Unless you are very easilyoffended, I really recommend it.
Andrew Hall Pittsburgh, PA
© 2001 Andrew R. Hall