An Inland Voyage (Belgium)

An Inland Voyage book coverby Robert Louis Stevenson – his first book

As a veteran of many trips by bicycle and canoe (kayak to you Americans), I enjoyed this lovely account of two young men paddling from Belgium to France.

Although my copy bears no publication date (and no page numbers) RLS, known as “Arethusa” after his canoe, lived from 1850-1894. I’m guessing the trip took place around 1870. It strikes me as odd that, despite the relatively little passage of time from then until now (compared to the billion-year sweep of Earth history) – that in order to really enjoy this book you have to read it with one hand on a dictionary and the other on a historical reference guide.

*Arethusa, btw, turns out to be a water nymph in Greek mythology.

An Archaic Language Bite

RLS made the Inland Voyage with his friend Sir Walter Simpson (referred to as “The Cigarette” after his canoe). They come upon a parade in Landrecies (northern France) and RLS says of the drummers: “Generally a man is never more uselessly employed than when he is at this trick of bastinadoing asses’ hide…” That turns out to be bastinado-ing, from the Spanish. It means beating or whipping – when applied to people, just on the soles of the feet. Hm.

Obscure History

Eglise St-Pierre St Paul

Many historical references passed over my head, dropping excremental curiosities upon me. Who was buried in the church at Landrecies (left), refered to only as “Marshal Clarke”? The answer turned out to be Napoleon’s Minister of War (1765-1818). RLS would have been born just one or two generations after the Napoleonic Wars and may have had grandparents or other relatives who fought in them. Just as I had a grandfather who fought in World War II.

But a great writer is a great writer, no matter what the century: Here he is on the French forest of Mormal, having just left Belgium:

“I wish our way had always lain among woods. Trees are the most civil society. An old oak that has been growing where he stands since before the Reformation, taller than many spires, more stately than the greater part of mountains, and yet a living thing, liable to sickness and death like you and me, is that not in itself, a speaking lesson in history?”

(Speaking of history, every time I Googled these place names, some World War I battle would come up. The impassible Mormal Forest gave the English and the Germans a hard time circa 1914. A shiver and a shudder lies upon these places, all of them. A foreshadowing of even more history than RLS could imagine…)

Tisselt Bridge
Tisselt Bridge, on the Willebroek Canal

The book paints a portrait of Belgian and French farmers tramping through fields, windmills busily turning; Belgian and French barge-men and their families and their dogs:

“Every barge boasted its mongrel cur as watch-dog: Each one barked furiously at the canoes, running alongside until he had got to the end of his own ship, and so passing on the word to the dog aboard the next.” Dogs, at least have not changed since 1870!

A Funny Book

The book is also funny in places. It isn’t funny all over, like Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (pub. 1889), although the struggles of “Arethusa” and his friend “The Cigarette” are well-known to every canoeist and kayaker. The men struggle through inclement weather that reminds RLS of the Scottish Highlands; landladies at inns take them for peddlers due to their scruffiness; they have trouble using their camp stove to cook with; they quarrel and fall out over who is doing the bulk of the work; the locks are annoying and portaging is a pain.

Antwerp, Belgium, where the voyage began

In a hotel in Boom, Belgium, the travelers encounter an English maid who has been out of England long enough to pick up “all sorts of funny foreign idioms, and all sorts of curious foreign ways.”

Neither RLS nor The Cigarette enjoy Belgian cuisine. This is kind of funny coming from a Scot and an Englishman: “The food, as usual in Belgium, was of a nondescript occasional character, indeed I have never been able to detect anything in the nature of a meal among this pleasing people; they seem to peck and trifle with viands all day long in an amateur spirit: tentatively French, truly German, and somehow falling between the two.”

French vs. English

At one inn, a peddler’s child lets off “Waterloo Crackers all over the floor” – and RLS wonders what they call them in France: Austerlitz crackers? He also mentions a Frenchman who came to England via Waterloo Station and under Waterloo Bridge and was so offended he went straight home again.

They paddled through Villevorde, Belgium

(Rumor has it that our Anglo “French Toast” is called “Golden Toast” or “Lost Bread” in France. The latter is because using stale bread for cooking is a way of reclaiming the food.)

And the Battle of Austerlitz? Turns out to be Napoleon’s greatest victory: He crushed the Russo-Austrian army after 9 hours of fighting outside Brno in Slovakia (modern Czech Republic). In my 20s I was thrilled to pass Brno on a train from Hungary to Austria: It is the birthplace of writer Milan Kundera.

The Last Word

Gretz, France: The end of this journey and the beginning of another

An absolutely delightful classic, less well-known than it should be. In my opinion, of more literary value than Anna Karenina or Catcher in the Rye!

* I found a blog on the Willebroek Canal (built in 1561). It cites An Inland Voyage and says it took place in 1878. RLS would have been 28 years old and still single.

** Although it is not mentioned in An Inland Voyage, when Arethusa and The Cigarette finish up in Grez, France in September,  something unexpected happens. RLS meets Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, the love of his life.

He is 28; she is 35. Fanny is an American who sailed to Belgium after the Civil War to live in an artists’ colony in Gretz.

After this I plan to read Under a Wide and Starry Sky, a fictionalized version of their love story. Thanks, Mom!

In 1935, "Western Samoa" issued these RLS stamps
In 1935, “Western Samoa” issued these RLS stamps

*** As always in this blog, the books end up getting connected by coincidence, or fate.

RLS died in “German Samoa” in  1894.

He and Fanny are both buried there, and there is a museum dedicated to him and his writing.


Nafanua: Saving the Samoan Rain Forest (Samoa)

Nafanuaby Paul Alan Cox

If you say it just right, the island of Savaii rhymes with Hawaii. That’s because the ancient Samoans were thought to have colonized a lot of Polynesia and Melanesia – and they never forgot their home island. Or their underwater goddess, Nafanua. And they kept giving things similar names. Kind of like New Boston or New Amsterdam.

Scientists know that developing in geographic isolation is a mixed blessing. On the wonderful side, it causes unique birds and animals to thrive, like the rare Samoan flying fox. And isolation from most predators caused the Samoan rainforest to evolve without protective biology – the author says humans could walk through the rainforest barefoot. But a huge problem with isolation is when that protective shielding goes away – when the Native Americans were rediscovered by the rest of humanity, they were wiped out by diseases they had been shielded from for thousands of years, for example. It was no different for the Samoans when they were colonized in the late 1800s.

Samoan Flying Fox
Samoan Flying Fox…a cool fruit bat which pollinates the rainforest

I don’t like change. I especially hate extinction. Like Paul Alan Cox, I was horrified to read that the rainforest near Falealupo village was about to be logged to death. That the American Fish & Game service was corrupted by Big Business into deliberately hampering efforts to save the endangered Samoan flying fox. (First they told Dr. Cox the species did not exist; then they counted hundreds of another species and informed him that there was no danger.) And I was distressed that the unique Samoan human culture would be dying as well.

It was deeply gratifying that Dr. Cox saved the rainforest by putting up his own money to fund the village school, so they wouldn’t have to get the money from logging. He later went on to found Seacology to save some of the world’s ocean ecosystems.


While I am grateful to live in a rich country like America, bits of Samoan life do sound like paradise to me. Living close to the ocean. The lack of polluting, stressful technology and machines. The slowness of time, the close-up beauty and peace. And the sense of community and connectedness that we in the West have either lost or never had. In Samoa, while you may have to work your guts out subsistence farming or subsistence fishing, you are never alone. The smallest unit of consciousness in Samoa is a village, Dr. Cox explains:

A man accidentally runs over and kills a small boy from a different village. His entire town makes themselves responsible to the grieving father. At sunrise the next day, there they are, 60 chiefs and other men from the driver’s village, sitting across the road in front of the father’s hut. They will not move until the other village forgives their village for the offense. Each man takes it in turn to rise and embrace the father, telling him how personally sorry they are, and giving gifts of money, pigs, and other items that can only be a sacrifice for such poor people.

This seems very sensible and very healing to me. As well as Confucian in its insistence on order, ritual, and right action for societal harmony.

Dr. Cox and the villagers are all sympathetic characters. Cox is fluent in Samoan, having learned it previously as a young LDS missionary to the islands. He and his family fit into village society as well as they can, much unlike a doctor friend who comes to visit. This small anecdote is the most shocking in the book and only reinforced my personal belief that Western medical practitioners are by inclination and training, too arrogant, too disrespectful, too impatient and too dismissive of anything they weren’t taught in school. Dr. Cox and his family even survive the worst earthquake (8.1) and tsunami in the island’s recorded history, right along with their Samoan friends and neighbors.

Confusing Country Names

Throughout the book I thought I was reading about American Samoa, because the author is American, and he was in Samoa. To make matters more confusing, Dr. Cox is listed on Wikipedia as having established the 50th National US Park – in American Samoa. But Falealupo village is in Independent Samoa. This made my head hurt. How about if the US just gives Samoa back to the people it belongs to?

Meanwhile, let’s clear up some confusion as best we can.

SavaiiFalealupo village
Island of Savaii
Independent State of Samoa
the setting for this book

These 10 islands are in the western part of the Samoan island chain – four inhabited and six not inhabited. Known as “German Samoa” up until the Germans lost World War 1, they were then known as “Western Samoa” and controlled by New Zealand until winning independence in 1962. They joined the UN in 1976.

Savaii island currently has about 43,000 people living there while Upolu island has about 150,000.

American Samoa

American Samoa
NOT the setting for this book

These 5 islands and 2 coral atolls in the EASTERN part of the island chain have a unique (and in my opinion, horribly unjust) status. About 50,000 people live there. Active American interference as late as the 1930s suppressed a Mau independence movement here like the one that succeeded in the western part of the islands. About the same time as we overthrew the Kingdom of Hawaii.

According to Wikipedia, people born in American Samoa are American nationals, but not American citizens. (Separate but equal, anyone?) They can’t vote, nor can they be taxed – thank goodness for some small measure of fairness. They do get to send one non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives. (What’s the point?)

Island SpeciesNo Closure

Although I learned a lot by reading the book and enjoyed some of it – some of it made me sad and angry about the state of our world and those in power – I did find it wanting in one respect. Some major incidents didn’t get closure. For example, during the hurricane, Mr. Cox finds himself forced to provide medical treatment to a little Samoan boy whose hand is almost severed by a flying piece of tin. He isn’t a doctor and the best he can do is to clean the wound, give the kid antibiotic pills, and split the hand.

There are only two chapters on the storm and then the next chapter takes place 8 years later. I did want some closure about the little boy and maybe an update about what all the characters are doing now.

It was also sad that Funio, the Samoan who jointly received the Goldman Environmental Prize along with Mr. Cox, for their efforts to create the first National Park in Samoa and save the rainforest, dies of cancer shortly afterward. I needed a better kind of closure there! Of course, maybe I’m really asking that one from life.

All in all, an eye-opening and enlightening book.


Heart of Darkness (The Congo)

Heart of DarknessA ship floating down the Thames in the peaceful quiet of a summer evening. “We felt meditative, and fit for nothing but placid staring,” says the unnamed narrator. Then a sailor called Marlowe starts the story.

The anonymous narrator, an “I” who intrudes briefly into the tale to describe Marlowe from the outside, may be “Conrad” himself. As I have said in earlier blogs, it was a popular convention at the time.

The frame story didn’t add much – except the bit where Marlowe imagines a Roman raiding party viewing the shores of the savage Celtic tribes much as his former Belgian employers viewed East Africa: Swampy, disease-ridden, full of inferior and uncivilized beings, and way too far from home.

I am always interested in the storytelling choices writers must make and their reasons for them. Conrad chooses here to write in the third person, and even explains why. We are told, you see, that Marlowe believes the most important parts of the story lie outside it. That meaning wraps around a story like a halo around moonlight. He is right. The cheap and spare Dover Thrift Edition is no way to read this book.

You will want at least:

  • a history of the indigenous peoples of East Africa
  • some knowledge of King Leopold of Belgium
  • a short biography of the multilingual Polish sailor Joseph Conrad

Without these references, the story raises more questions than it answers. I wondered: Why are “Zanzibari tribesmen” acting as porters so far north? Why are the hungry black sailors on the ship described as “800 miles” from their homes? What internal wars were going on between the indigenous groups in the Congo that the captured are working on chain gangs for the white devils…? Why does Marlowe, like Herman Melville’s narrator Tommo, hate the French so much…?

It was interesting to me that Marlowe refers to the city where his company is headquartered as a “whited sepulchure” or tomb, and refuses to even name it. (I assume this city is Paris.) In contrast, he calls London “the biggest, the greatest city on earth.”

More Questions

I also wanted to know:

  • Was Conrad a racist or was he a man of his time, trying to depict racism but still with subliminal prejudices of his own?
  • Was he incapable of telling a straight, linear story due to English being his second language, or was he trying for literary purposes to deliberately write in an enigmatic fashion?

I know as a modern reader I expect more straight-forward storytelling. I also know I become a bit upset when I don’t get it. I mean, Marlowe spends months waiting for rivets and then suddenly he’s on his way upriver and I was like wait – did the rivets finally come in? When? Why wasn’t I informed…you know? It’s all a bit dream-like; all a bit vague, all a bit too dreamy for me.

I knew coming into the book that the Belgian occupation of the parts of East Africa now known as The Congo and Ruanda was brutal even by colonialist standards. Marlowe does seem to be shocked at the careless and wanton disregard for human life evidenced by the men he works for in the ivory trade. Starved, overworked black men flop down everywhere to die. White field agents, riddled with tropical fevers, have the nerve to expire too loudly (coughing) in the company accountant’s office.

Having just read a bunch of books on Taoist and Buddhist philosophy, I noticed that Marlowe judges everything. He see everything as either the way it should be, or the way it shouldn’t be. He compares all landscapes, events, and people to some “normal” thing in his head, instead of accepting his surroundings as they truly are.

However much you loathe most of the characters in the book, there is an uncomfortable amount of common ground between them and us. For example:

“My Intended, my career, my station, my ideas…” bemoans a feverish Kurtz, being hauled out of the Congo by tramp steamer.


I enjoyed some of Conrad’s writing style:

“A deadened burst of might snorts and splashes reached us from afar…as though an ichthyosaurus had been taking a glitter bath in that great river.”

But I don’t agree with all of his claims. Marlowe says that the last words of Kurtz represent “a moral victory.” How? It’s not like he’s going to make it up to the Africans. He doesn’t even say he’s sorry. And it wasn’t at all clear to me that Marlowe was deliberately hiding parts of Kurtz’s papers because they showed hidden locations of ivory. I didn’t even get that until I saw it on Wikipedia.

Like the fossilized ivory Kurtz piles in his hut, the story was worth taking a look at- a valuable addition to the literature of this period – but to balance it I definitely want to read something set in the same time period (1890s I believe) by a Ruandan or Congolese writer. Because there’s just nothing like the smell of Napalm in the morning.


Ghost of Chance (Madagascar)

Ghost of ChanceIt is odd to say the least, for a writer like William S. Burroughs – a man who makes a living by skillful use of a tool called “language” – to say that language is the problem, “from which all human ‘problems’ stem”.

This is just one of the many startling concepts in this small, gorgeous novel. Along with the idea that time, as a tool, is a non-beneficial concept.

WARNING: If you are a devout Christian, I would stay away from this book. It may be upsetting.

I must say I fell in love with the novel before I even opened it. The form I have is a tiny hardback with mysterious black-and-white pen and ink drawings. Like peering into the Madagascarian jungle, I have no idea what I’m looking at. I only know that it’s beautiful, and somehow…it’s alive.

Burroughs blends fantasy and fact so skillfully that, like a person taking LSD, you’re not sure whether what is happening is real. And what is real, anyway?

The story is full of delicious irony. The white man’s ship which comes to the island paradise of Madagascar is called The Pandora. The explorer and supreme commander of the utopia is called Captain Mission. And in the stone temple of extinction and lost chances lie not only weird and wonderful flora and fauna, but also deadly diseases.

Some of My Favorite Bits

Pan is Dead: “Captain Mission did not fear Panic, the sudden, intolerable knowing that everything is alive. He was himself an emissary of Panic, of the knowledge that man fears above all else: the truth of his origin. It’s so close. Just wipe away the words and look…”

Environmentalism: “When we see the planet as an organism, it is obvious who the enemies of the planet are. Their name is legion. They dominate and populate the planet. The deceived and the deceivers who are themselves deceived. Did Homo Sap think other animals were there just for him to eat?”

Make Your Enemy Your Friend? “What does your virus do with enemies? It makes enemies into itself. If he hasn’t caught it from the first cheek, turn the other cheek. There are few things more difficult than loving your enemies. So anyone who can do it will gain heavy power. Loving an enemy is an inhuman practice, placing the practitioner far above-or far below- the human level.”

What the Heck is a Lemur Anyway?

LemursAccording to Burroughs, these gentle forest spirits, the Lemur People, are related to primates. Ie, us. That doesn’t mean they’ve received any special consideration, of course. We shoot them because of the Ugly Thing That Lives Inside us, our drive to perpetuate the species. Homo Sap.

We all know that Man is ruthless, Man is violent. But Burroughs drives the point home in a completely new setting. The knowledge doesn’t beat you over the head, it sneaks up on you and then beats you over the head.

That’s what I call writing genius. (So does the blurb on the back of the book, which I met, as usual, with the utmost skepticism. But this time, “they” were right.)

Pirates and Primates

Madagascar IslandThe best part of the book, for me, was the Afterword, which turned over the body of the work and let me see the bones. Turns out Burroughs based this story on the adventures of a 17th-century pirate captain, who founded the utopian colony of Libertatia. And then it turns out that this legend comes from the (very) creative non-fiction book A General History of the Pyrates by “Captain Charles Johnson”.

Wikipedia thinks Johnson may have been a nom de plume for Daniel Defoe. (Since Google turns up several published editions of the book with Defoe’s name right on the cover, I would have to say this is more than likely. Lol)

In the novel, since Mankind will not restrain himself, Mother Nature eventually does it for him and her solution is vast and terrible. Not to mention final.

To prove, Dear Reader, that you are not an “enemy of the planet”, may I humbly suggest that you join Burroughs and myself in donating to the cause? According to the writer,

General History Pyrates“Duke University Primate Center needs financial support from concerned individuals. Write to DUPC, Duke University, Durhan North Carolina 27706.”

They’re calling it Duke Lemur Center now, and here for you modern individuals, is the website:

The Time is Now.

As I heard on NPR recently, Right Time For Right Action Is Now.

Thanks to my friend Juliet for recommending this book!




Enrique’s Journey (Honduras)

Enriques JourneyToday I woke up a little depressed. It was chilly. I hate winter and strongly suspect I suffer from seasonal affect disorder (SAD) like 12 million Northern Europeans.

As I walked my 2 “fur kids” around the elementary school, we encountered a little boy. He had large chocolate eyes and was not dressed warmly enough for the weather. He seemed wary of the dogs. I said “Good Morning” to him and after a moment, shyly, he said it back.

The Immigrant Story

The situation: Single mothers throughout Central America, including Honduras, are leaving their young children behind in search of fool’s gold – a job as a nanny or a maid in the US.

The children left behind feel abandoned. Their bellies are now full, but their hearts are bruised. Kids as young as 9 have been found by la migra – the Border Patrol – wandering through downtown L.A. looking for their mothers.

According to Mother Jones, 70,000 children from Central America and Mexico show up alone at the US border each year. Could the little boy in Spokane have been one? If so, he was lucky. In Honduras, he would most likely not be going to fourth grade. He’d be selling tortillas on the street. Or begging. It’s hard to go to school when you don’t own a pair of shoes. When  you can’t afford to buy paper. (I imagine an electronic gadget like a cell phone or tablet would be as out of reach as a trip to the moon.)

The migration of the children is too much to comprehend en masse, so Pulitzer-Prize winning L.A. Times reporter Sonia Nazario decided to profile a single child. Enrique, from Tegucigalpa.

Legal or Illegal?

Enrique’s home city

I expected that the author of this book would be Latina. Actually, her parents were born in Peru. Her grandparents are from Syria. She was lucky. Her dad was an engineer. Her parents got to come to America on a plane, with papers. They were not without resources.

The children in the book, like Enrique, have literally nothing. Many are so poor they have never owned a single book, or even one toy. They’ve never had a birthday party or a piñata. Worst of all, poverty has robbed them of the one possession they should always have had: the presence of their parents.

Lourdes, the mother of Enrique and his sister Belky, was dumped by her husband for another woman. Lourdes didn’t want to watch her kids scrounging in garbage dumps for scraps. She decided to make the dangerous journey to El Norte. She didn’t know she’d be stuck in the US, afraid to leave in case she couldn’t get back in.

She didn’t know that her children, once they were no longer starving, wouldn’t forgive her for abandoning them just so she could send barbies and toy trucks from the north. She didn’t know that the crap wages she would be paid for working two shitty jobs simultaneously would never provide her with a decent standard of living. It is much cheaper to live in Honduras. Lourdes didn’t know that the money she sent home so her daughter Belky could graduate from high school and become a professional would drive a wedge between her and Enrique, who didn’t do well in school. That her cute, needy little boy would always feel his mother gave his sister more; loved her best.

Is It Our Fault?

WealthCreatesPoverty Zentangle

Are North American policies to blame for the obscene economic conditions of Central Americans? I believe that wealth creates poverty and visa-versa. Extreme wealth creates extreme poverty. (This is based on a TED Talk I heard a few years ago explaining how slavery benefitted a very few and how low-wage jobs are not much different. Buddhist monk and humanitarian Thich Nhat Hahn says something similar in his book Peace Is The Way.)

I know people here in the US who say they don’t mind taking in immigrants – as long as they apply legally. Is it reasonable to expect people to wait for a decade while they watch their children cry themselves to sleep at night because all they’ve had to eat is a glass of water with a teaspoon of sugar? There was a time when my Mormon forebears – who also had large families – lived in a tent in southern Idaho and dined on water with a little flour stirred in. I’m not sure why they didn’t have to also contend with crooked law enforcement and rampant bandits and gangs. I’m glad they didn’t however, and that the LDS Church looked after its own, providing church welfare. I doubt my ancestors would have survived without it.

Enrique’s Odyssey

Enrique tried to make it into the US eight times before succeeding. He was robbed, he was beaten, he starved, he froze, he saw fellow migrants lose arms and legs to the Mexican trains; he met girls his age who had been raped by bandits and robbed by police. All before he turned 17.

Father Alejandro Solalinde gets death threats from drug cartels on a regular basis for helping migrants.

Strangely, these parts of the book didn’t make me cry. What made me cry were the parts where, in Veracruz and Oaxaca, the very poorest Mexicans would go down to the train tracks four times a day and throw food, water, and sweaters and blankets to the migrants atop the cars. Unlike northern Mexicans along the US border, who feel strongly that they should be able to immigrate to America but where nine in ten flatly refuse to help Central American migrants. Unlike southern Mexicans in the state of Chiapas, which borders Guatemala, where lawlessness runs rampant – the police are afraid of the gangs – children can be beaten and thrown from the train by bandits. (And needless to say, unlike US ranchers along the border, who have been known to shoot migrants who approach them for help. Recently a 17 year old Mexican boy bled to death after being shot in the leg by a rancher.)

No, a few Catholic churches in the central Mexican states have taken up the migrants’ cause. One brave priest even intervened when the police began beating a pregnant 16-year-old. Within minutes he was surrounded by 50 of his parishioners, who ran the three cops out of their village.

Act Like Jesus, Lose Half Your Congregation

Of course, not everyone agrees with his actions. Ironically, both priests profiled in the book lost half their congregations when they began acting like Jesus – helping the migrants. People complained that it wasn’t seemly – that the migrants were smelly and dirty, uneducated, that they were peeing outside. Mexico, it seems, is more developed than Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala. The majority of people in Mexico look down on Central Americans as less educated, and poorer than they. Just like the majority of people in the US look down on the Mexicans.

Border Patrol jail in the Rio Grande Valley, May 2014

The plight of unaccompanied minor immigrants in the US has been on the news a lot lately. I wonder how many people ever ask themselves what those kids have suffered to get where they are – why they were so desperate to do it?

(Photo at left is ALL children.)

No Reason

After reading Enrique’s Journey, I know that for the next few days I will feel grateful for blessings I normally take for granted. That I have all my limbs in good working order. That food, water, and warmth and shelter are readily available to me – and it is inconceivable that they ever wouldn’t be. That I have animal companions. That entire aisles and rows in the supermarkets in my country are full of nothing but pet food. That while, like every daughter, I have issues with my mother, I wasn’t forced to do without her during my formative years. I never had to question whether or not she loved me – or whether she loved me enough.

I know, having battled depression for over 20 years, that it is too simple to point out to a depressed person that others in the world are worse off. I know that my newfound awareness of just how bad it is for children like Enrique will not last. But the Jewish tradition of performing acts of kindness, or mitzvahs, did not spring from nowhere – it is true that helping others makes people feel better. Even people with major mental illness. If we in the wealthy US start helping children like Enrique, we will at the same time help ourselves. (Since I believe that being born into a certain country and class is a matter of random chance, there is always the chance that by ignoring the plight of Central American children, you yourself could be born as one the next time.)

The major irony of the book – and of Enrique’s life – is that while he remained bitter over his mother’s decision for many years, Enrique also left a child behind in Honduras. When he decided to go north, his girlfriend Maria Isobel was just discovering she was pregnant with a little girl. Enrique decided he could best help his baby by working as a housepainter in North Carolina.

This is a cycle that needs to be broken. And a book that needs to be read.


Typee (Te Enata Henua or The Marquesas Islands)

TypeeImagine that Herman Melville goes on Oprah to discuss his experiences as a captive of a cannibal tribe in the Marquesas Islands. His book Typee is a bestseller. (Moby Dick, with its nonlinear storytelling and its long, philosophical sidebars won’t be nearly as popular.) Melville shows a surprisingly non-racist awareness for a man of his time, even criticizing the hypocrisies of the missionaries of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) and the rapacious way in which the leaders of Polynesian tribes collude with the white men, resulting in poverty and enslavement for their peoples.

Oh, sure, there are the usual ideas about the noble savage and the promiscuousness of island women; the usual judgments about the laziness of southerners and disrespect for their gods. But Melville seems to me to genuinely admire the peacefulness of the island people; how even in the midst of violent hatred between the Typees and the 2 other island tribes, they don’t venture into each other’s valleys bent on killing.

Melville was captivated by the easiness of life where all the food you need grows on trees year-round. Where old tribal women cook up the island’s three famous breadfruit dishes most expertly – if you’re a man, you just let the women work for you. Where the people’s days are filled with nothing more strenuous than napping, swimming (Melville calls it “bathing”), eating, and gathering tropical flowers.

Annnnnnd…then one of Oprah’s researchers, perhaps her friend Gayle, discovers that Melville has made the whole thing up. Yes, he once shipped on a whaler that visited the Marquesas. That’s about it. He’s written Typee mostly by reading books written by men who actually did live in the Marquesas, and sometimes he’s gotten his facts wrong.

Had this scenario actually played itself out today, I believe his readers would have been angry. Oprah herself would have felt as betrayed as she did when she found out that James Frey had only spent a few hours in jail, rather than the 87 days he wrote about in his “memoir”, A Million Little Pieces.

What I Shall Assume, You Shall Assume

MarquesasBut! In Melville’s day, this sort of literary deception was common. In graduate school, I read a number of novels which began, Dear Reader. It was understood that the author would be inventing a few things. That’s why it is called “creative” non-fiction. In modern times, our understanding has changed and we have come to use the yardstick of “truth” as the basic difference between fiction and other genres.

And boy, is that truth subjective. I just saw a PBS documentary where an early anthropologist at Machu Picchu identified bones in a cave as more than 80% female, thus leading to the erroneous theory that he and the explorer had found the remains of the “Virgins of the Sun”. Modern bone men, while not entirely free of their own set of assumptions, discovered that the bones were in fact equally divided between male and female. The first scientist had assumed, based on his knowledge of the bone size of Europeans and Africans, that these small bones must belong to women. When in fact native Peruvians even today are much shorter than other nationalities.

Poe, Hawthorne and Melville

Nuka HivaIn my early American lit class at University of Idaho, we learned that Typee, like Omoo, was a “potboiler” – a worthless piece of genre fiction Melville wrote to live on while he worked on his “masterpiece” Moby Dick. The back of Typee, on the other hand, insists that it is Melville’s finest and most popular work. Hmm. As a look at the attitudes of New Englanders toward Polynesian islanders in the 1800s I find it fascinating. As a story it leaves a lot to be desired.

I didn’t find it to be “a thrilling adventure” due to the fact that nothing very much happens. Tom, or Tommo, as the natives call him, deserts his ship because he thinks the captain is greedy and finding excuses not to return to New England, so the sailors are having to serve longer than their original contract. He’s worried that he’ll be captured by cannibals. But as he and fellow deserter Toby are unable to survive on their own – Tommo suffers a mysterious leg wound that keeps getting worse – they descend into the valley of the Typee, where the indigenous people take an unexplained liking to Tommo and treat him like a king. A prisoner king, because they won’t let him leave, although they finally allow Toby to go.

Marquesas TwoThis plot device is never explained. And while Tommo is very afraid of cannibals – (imagine if Leon, the Borneo tribesman who enjoys teasing Redmond O Hanlon about headshrinkers had gotten ahold of him!) – they never materialize, somewhat to the reader’s disappointment. Most of the “action” is simply a description of everyday life among the Typee – what they eat, how they build their houses, what the inside of their temple looks like. Yawn. This would be more interesting if we got the indigenous people’s feelings and emotions – if it were written from the inside out, rather than from a foreigner looking on with a huge lack of understanding. For one thing, the fictional Tommo makes zero attempt to learn the language.

James Frey may have believed that his work wouldn’t sell as well if he told the truth – that it was fiction. I think he is right about that. Why? Why are people so fascinated with “reality” TV shows and autobiographies and memoirs? Personally, I have a fascination with how other people live; what they think, how they solve or do not solve problems. No amount of fiction, unless it is written so well that it could be non-fiction, can compete.

While I’m not sure Melville has accomplished that here – I certainly enjoyed the book more than Moby Dick!

Herman Melvilles House