Sorry… I know I said I was done reposting book reviews, but my friend Alexis asked me if I’d read this one. I had, so I am reposting the review for her, as it appeared November 28, 2014. And NOW I am really done with the reposts for today!
Here’s yet another book review about a story of a Mormon missionary. If you read this blog often, you know I am a sucker for stories about people giving up time and money to serve the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Because my husband is an exMormon and has a rather negative opinion of Mormonism (which he has passed on to me), many of the books I tend to read about these experiences are somewhat negative. This time, I read a book that was mostly positive about the missionary experience.
Craig Harline, author of Way Below the Angels (2014), served as a missionary for the Mormon church back in the 1970s. He went from his hometown of Fresno, California to Belgium, one of my favorite places in the world. There, he made an attempt to learn Dutch, get along with his ever changing companions, and maybe attract some Belgians to the LDS church. Harline’s time in Belgium was concentrated on Flemish speaking areas, namely Antwerp and Brussels.
Although he wasn’t all that successful in wooing beer loving Belgians to the “clean living” of Mormonism, Harline seems to have come away from his mission experience with a deep affection for Belgian people. Given that I went to Armenia for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer and left my service with sort of a love/hate relationship with Armenia, I could sort of relate to Craig Harline’s story somewhat, even though we went away for different reasons. I think that’s another reason why I like missionary stories. I am interested in other peoples’ cultural experiences because I have a number of my own.
He writes one story about trying to drive one of the mission’s cars and almost running over a small Belgian man because he neglected to check his blind spot before backing out of a parking space. Naturally, bystanders who witnessed Harline hitting the old man were shocked and horrified. And Harline was also horrified and pictured himself being hauled off to court. But no… it turned out the old man was in a hurry and just wanted to get on his way. I witnessed a similar event once in Spain, when an elderly lady fell down at the bottom of an escalator. Many people wanted to help her and get her seen by a doctor, but she was very focused on catching her train!
Like many young men who go on Mormon missions, Harline had fantastic visions of converting people. He was sure his superior sales training, personal charm, and newly acquired language skills, along with the very appealing Mormon values and lifestyle, would be enough to win him many conversions for the “one true church”. Reality soon came crashing down as Harline learned that Belgians were mostly fine with Catholicism or atheism or any other belief system that allowed them to drink what they wanted and smoke cigarettes. What was really pretty cool about Harline’s story, though, is that he was open to experiencing Belgian culture. He visited Catholic churches. He made Belgian friends who were kind to him and open to visiting as long as he didn’t talk religion. He learned to be more humble and, more importantly, be himself. Those are valuable lessons that so many people could stand to learn, especially when they’re still young.
Craig Harline has an entertaining writing style that is fun to read, though it took me some time to finish his book. I think the main reason it took so long is because I’ve been gearing up for the holidays and don’t have as much time to read and focus as I usually do. I tend to be tired and distracted when I go to bed and that’s when I do most of my reading. And yet, when I was able to focus on Harline’s book, I was definitely entertained. I write this even though Harline’s writing tends to meander a bit. His sentences are long and wordy and it may seem like he takes awhile to get to the point. Fortunately, reading Harline’s long sentences was well worth the effort for me.
I enjoyed Way Below the Angels and would read it again. In fact, it might be a good thing to re-read it at a time when I can devote more mental energy and attention to the task. I think this is the kind of book that needs to be digested in larger portions. Craig Harline currently teaches European History at Brigham Young University. Though this is the first book I’ve read by him, I see that he’s written quite a few others. If you like missionary memoirs, particularly by Mormon authors, I highly recommend Way Below the Angels.
As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site.