Title: The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary
Author: William Shunn
Publisher: Sinister Regard
Year Published: 2015 (November 10)
Number of Pages: 412
Binding: paper or hardcover
ISBN13: 978-1-941928-55-4 (hard), 978-1-941928-56-1 (paper)
Price: $27.95 (hard); $15.95 (paper); $4.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Richard Packham for the Association for Mormon Letters
[This review is based on a prepublication uncorrected review copy.]
Although I read a great many books, both fiction and non-fiction, I generally do it in small doses, a few hours at a time. I tell myself it is to prolong the pleasure and to allow the wisdom and knowledge time to percolate into my mind. If I were to be completely honest, it is more probably because it is rare that a book can hold my boyish attention for more than a couple of hours at a time.
But I devoured the more than four hundred pages of this memoir in what was essentially one sitting, with time out only for potty breaks, some quick nourishment, and a little unavoidable sleep. Yes, it was that gripping.
Why does a book grab onto a reader like that, so that it is almost impossible to put down? An exciting plot, with a lot of “what’s going to happen next?” points? A clever use of language throughout, bringing a happy smile to the reader’s face over a turn of phrase or an apt simile, again and again? A familiarity because it takes place in a setting the reader knows already? Some “ohmygod did that really happen?” moments? All of these kept me glued to this lively trip through the author’s experiences as he began his proselytizing mission in Canada for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) in the late ’80s.
The title is perhaps a take-off on the novel by Anne Tyler, “The Accidental Tourist” (1985 – later made into a movie with William Hurt and Geena Davis). But the only similarity I can see is how the weird family in “Tourist” resembles some of the weird missionaries that Shunn encountered on his mission.
For any reader who also served a mission for the LDS church, Shunn’s memoir will undoubtedly bring back many laughs and tears as we go through the joys, frustrations, disappointments and shenanigans that seem to be a part of every Mormon missionary’s two-year stint – all of them are here. We experience everything typical along with Shunn. We learn the special vocabulary that only missionaries understand and speak (although they probably differ somewhat in each mission): buckets, blisters, gators, apes, P-day, dying, grandson, flip, and dozens more.
Shunn’s mission experience was unusual in one respect, however, which is reflected by the title: he was arrested and convicted in Canada on a charge of hijacking a commercial airliner, which happened because of his desperation to serve the Lord. If you find that hard to believe, you’ll just have to read the book.
Shunn very skillfully interweaves his own personal story with the story of Joseph Smith, Jr., the prophet and founder of the LDS church. He is able to find a number of parallels between his troubles and the Prophet’s, although Shunn does not claim to be a prophet himself. The book thus becomes historical, as well as autobiographical.
Some readers may be familiar with an earlier recounting of Shunn’s adventures, especially the hijacking incident, since he put a shorter version of that adventure on the Internet a number of years ago (at shunn.net). It became something of a “cult classic” among ex-Mormon and ex-missionary readers. Other readers may be familiar with some of the author’s other published writings, which have appeared over the past two decades in various journals and anthologies.
This memoir is a welcome addition to the library of Mormon autobiography – educational and highly entertaining.