Reviewed by Catherine K. Arveseth

I was surprised by The Circle in the Clouds – pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed reading the travels of John and Nancy Hopkins through the urbanism and countryside of Mongolia. The Hopkins spent countless dedicated hours recording their days of humanitarian service in Mongolia; from the mundane minutes it took to “clorox” their vegetables to the most memorable of human moments, like a young crippled boy receiving his first wheelchair – a moment that infinitely changed a life because of the selfless act of another.

Initially, I felt the weakness of the book was in its structure – dated chapters that read like emails home to family.  The writing was not necessarily masterful or procured over time.  It was dense, dripping with detail and sometimes laborious.  After further reading, however, I was so impressed by the work they were doing, so invested in learning about the people of Mongolia and the growth of the church there that I couldn’t stop reading.  I began to fall in love with the Hopkins and their lengthy journal entries.  Their approach was a down-home, hands in the dirt, unabashed “here we are at our best and worst” approach.  It was sincere, without pretense and refreshingly open.  And I liked it.  As I read on, I came to greatly admire and appreciate the purpose with which they recorded each new experience.

Called to Serve

John and Nancy Hopkins were called to serve a Humanitarian Service Mission in Mongolia for the LDS Church in 1997-1998.  Their primary responsibility was to serve as directors of the English Project, sponsored by Deseret International Charities.  They were also required to teach English at various schools/locations.  This was a requirement of all missionaries to maintain a visa and stay in the country.

Hurrah for Senior Missionary Couples like the Hopkins!  Married 50 plus years, this charming couple left the comforts of an American home, including those ever-persuasive grandchildren, for an entirely different lifestyle and experience.  An apartment that frequently lost power, a language they didn’t know, grueling days of hard work, miles and miles of walking, below freezing temperatures, relentless dust storms, new foods, little access to American products, uncomfortable train rides, and the list goes on and on.  Ask them, however, if they would do it all again and they would immediately answer, “yes!”

I chuckled to myself as I read of the inconveniences in Mongolia and thought that this book could either discourage or encourage seniors from serving a mission.  For the Hopkins, however, the love, hospitality, and spirit of the Mongolian people far outweighed any inconvenience they would endure.  For all you seniors out there contemplating missionary service – read on!  This might be just the thing you need to send in your papers! 

The zeal and energy with which the Hopkins attended to the Lord’s work was astounding, as was their unconditional love for the Mongolian people.  In the following excerpt, Nancy records their Thanksgiving visit to a local orphanage in Ulaanbaatar.  While touring the orphanage, they passed a room in which young children were holding a talent show.

Attending the Lord’s Work

“As we looked in, children were dancing together, children and teachers were dancing together…all were having a wonderful time.  We couldn’t resist.  We grabbed the hands of some of the little ones standing around the sides and then others got brave and joined our circles.  We were silly and they laughed at and with us.  One little boy who I had earlier thought looked especially sad and emaciated came over and took my hand.  With that, the little part of my heart that hadn’t yet melted, disappeared.  Their kindred who are still on and under the streets don’t have anything to smile and laugh about.  What a blessing that God has put us here that our eyes may see and ears may hear’ his little ones who have a need and that a generous Church and people stand ready with outstretched arms to succor them.  I’m thankful on this Thanksgiving Day for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the generosity of its members.”

The Hopkins made several return visits to the orphanage to donate clothing, school supplies, toys and medical supplies, all of which were shipped to Mongolia by the Church’s Humanitarian Center.  It is often mentioned in the book how grateful the Mongolian missionaries were for the welfare and charitable services of the Church.  This book lets you peek into the lives of those who benefit from such donations.

You will laugh as you read of the Hopkins’ outings to the black market, the Mongolians who knock on their door just to have their picture taken in front of a Television set, John’s taxi ride from Darkhan to Ulaanbaatar smashed into the back seat with four other Mongolian women, the little Mongolian girl who sits on John’s lap just to rub his balding head (few men go bald in Mongolia), and the singing of “Old MacDonald” in all of their English classes.  As the Hopkins put it, “The sun shines every day in Mongolia!” even if it is 20 degrees below zero.

Circle in the Clouds

The book’s title, The Circle in the Clouds, comes from an image the Hopkins grew to love.  The Mongolian “ger” is a type of dwelling for nomadic peoples that live in the mystical Mongolian countryside.  It is a round structure with an opening in the top that is circular.  The circle is sacred in the lives of the Mongolians, sacred in its symbolism and perfection.  The Hopkins often looked up through a ger’s circular opening to see the sky perfectly framed like a “circle in the clouds.”

In addition to journaling their adventures, the Hopkins gave an excellent history of the LDS Church in Mongolia and its rapid growth.  When the Hopkins served from 1997-1998, the Book of Mormon had not yet been translated into Mongolian. Yet, church membership in the country was growing at a phenomenal pace.  All missionaries looked forward to the coming translation because 94% of the country was literate!  No tracting or door-knocking efforts were needed.  All missionary work evolved out of referrals from members who excitedly shared the gospel with family and friends.

Readers will be humbled by the faith and innocence of the Mongolian people.   During their teaching and service, the Hopkins reflected often upon the lines from the song “Getting to Know You” in The King and I.  “It’s a very ancient saying, but a true and honest thought.  If you become a teacher, by your students you’ll be taught.”

The Hopkins went on to serve a second mission in Hong Kong as Area Welfare Agents, following which they were transferred back to Mongolia to serve another nine months creating employment programs for returned missionaries and unemployed members.  Brother Hopkins now serves as the Patriarch for the Philadelphia Pennsylvania Stake of the Church and Nancy is his typist.

I found the Hopkins’ book to be delightful.  I must confess I skipped past the early chapters of waiting for the mission call and entering the mission training center.  I wanted to get to the meaty stuff where the book really started moving.  Any prospective Senior Missionary or young Missionary headed for the countryside of Mongolia should make sure they read The Circle in the Clouds.  It is an honest, celebratory narration of an invaluable service to God’s people in one of the farthest corners of the earth. 

To see pictures of the people and places in this book, visit