If you’re an Evangelical (and if you’re reading this obscure blog, you probably are), you’ve certainly heard of Elisabeth Elliot. Maybe you’ve even read a book or two of hers, and you certainly know that her husband was martyred in South America in the middle of the 20th century. But if you’re like me, you might not know much about Elliot beyond that. Fortunately, Lucy Austen has help to offer with that, with her new biography Elisabeth Elliot: A Life.
Frankly, this book is superb. And the evidence of that is that most of Elliot’s life is not full of high adventure or drama, but rather is the life of a woman who quietly lives her life writing, speaking, and reflecting on her faith. Yes, she had adventure and tragedy in South America, but that was not most of her life. I do not say this to denigrate Elliot–quiet lives are things we should all pray to be blessed by and should work to help provide for those who currently lack it. I say this to show what a great writer Austen is. At no point does this biography drag or feel like the 600+ page text it is. The style of this book is what biographies should be.
So is the content. If the style is excellent, so is Austen’s presentation and analysis of Elliot’s life. Thoroughly research and, as other reviewers have noted, well-positioned in historical context, this biography is a full introduction to woman with a complex and rich inner life who lived in the public eye and who did much to advance the faith.
One thing that stands out is Austen’s palpable frustration with her lack of access to some of Elliot’s journals. Repeatedly comments are made like “perhaps when Elliot’s journals from this time period are available we’ll know more.” No blame is place, and we come away not knowing who is withholding access to the journals or why, but the biographer’s annoyance is plain.
Another thing that stands out, at least to me. Elliot’s experience in South America was not my image of the missionary life, at least not in the mid-20th century tribal culture. Yes, she spent time living in huts with no indoor plumbing. But she also spent time living with a different tribe (but still with a tribe) in her house playing her organ and using a refrigerator in her kitchen. Again, not what I had expected, but well-written and interesting nonetheless.
Again, this is an excellent book and one that should be on your biography shelf.