Susa Young Gates: Death and Loss in La’ie

A few years ago at a meeting of the Mormon History Association, Lisa Tait suggested that I read Susa Young Gates’ novel The Little Missionary. It was a barely fictionalized account of Susa’s experiences as a missionary wife in L?’ie, a small Mormon community in Hawai‘i focused on the production of sugar cane. Lisa felt that the novel would offer me insight into daily life on the plantation – the difficulty of eating Hawaiian food, the close relationships that developed between the men and women stationed there, and the gossip that sometimes circulated around the small community. It wasn’t until a few days ago, however, that I finally found the novel, which had been serialized in the Juvenile Instructor, and began to read.

Most of the novel is a light, cheerful exploration of the difficulties that white women as missionaries. Using a Mary Jane character, Susa describes the nausea that had greeted her on her way to the islands and the initial distrust of her children towards poi, mangos, and other Hawaiian foods. She also describes meeting the Hawaiian queen and watching Hawaiian Mormons pounding kapa cloth. Not all of the novel, however, has a jovial tone. While she was living in Hawai’i, two of her sons died of “diphtheritric croup.” In her diary, she described sitting by the bed of one of her sons, rubbing his bowels in an attempt to reveal his pain. Although her son begged her not to leave him, she knew that she had to get some rest and went to bed. Her son died later that night. She wrote that she had “hoped and believed” that the angel of death would spare her house, for she “didn’t dream people could die on missions.”

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