The Way Around (Venezuela)

by David Good

advancedThe Way Around book cover Reader’s Copy courtesy of Auntie’s Bookstore

And I thought Sherman Alexie’s origin stories were harrowing. (If you didn’t know, Sherman is a member of the Spokane tribe, and grew up on a reservation at Wellpinit, near the city of Spokane.) At a recent reading at the Bing Crosby Theater, Sherman shared the pain of losing his mother, who passed away this July.

He talked about how confusing it was as an American Indian boy, growing up with an absent alcoholic father who left him in no doubt that he loved him, and a dependable mother who tried to feed and clothe the children but expressed no affection.

As a Native American woman, she was the target of genocide. Sherman said that he never felt adored, but then who had adored her?

Half Yanomami, Half New Jersey

Yanomami womanGrowing up, David Good felt similar pain. Only in his case, he was raised by his American anthropologist father. His Yanomami mother abandoned the family when he was 6 years old, returning to the rainforests of Venezulea to live. Growing up, David tried his hardest to fit into his New Jersey home, pretending to be just like everybody around him. It worked until Junior High School, when he was outed by his father while having dinner with the baseball coach, a man David admired.

David’s father, a man socially awkward to begin with, casually joked with the coach that David was unlike all the other boys. Because his mother was off living naked in the jungle, eating tarantulas. (It’s hard enough to be 14. But to be 14 and so different from your peers must have been agony.)

ShabonoAs an adult, David returns to the rainforest to reconnect with his mother, whose language he no longer speaks. He is terrified of bugs. But he goes anyway.

The Yanomami tribes are special because they’ve had very little contact with Western Culture, right up until the 1970s. And assimilation is happening, and happening rapidly, but at the same time, we can learn a lot from them about what tribal life might have been like without colonization.

Yanomami territoryThis book raised a lot of issues. I remembered Sherman saying at the Bing that his favorite kind of white people are those who accept Indians, but don’t want to be one. Who don’t romanticize them. David Good mentions a certain kind of “Noble Savage” mentality in regards to the Yanomami also. Yes, their way of living is a lot healthier than that of the West, in many regards. They don’t hide their emotions. They are close to nature. But there are also bad people among the tribes.

Not Better, Not Worse, Just Different

David Good and his mother
David Good and his mother Yarima

For example, David’s mother is brainwashed and kidnapped at one point by a greedy tribesman called Armando. He isn’t Yanomami but is from another tribe in Venezuela. He holds her hostage in a room in the city, beating and raping her. He forces her to go on national television and say that David’s father is taking advantage of her, that she didn’t marry him of her own free will, etc. It causes enough concern in the government that David’s father is never able to return to Venezuela.

Another issue that comes up is that of interfering with the customs in a culture different from your own. Now, in my travels, I’ve had to deal with this. At NOVA ICI in Japan, my teaching school, we were told never to discuss certain “sensitive” issues with the students. They were: 1) World War II, 2) Whaling and 3) The indigenous Ainu people, whose land the Japanese had taken many centuries earlier, forcing the Natives into a small area of the northernmost island of Hokkaido.

One day a spirited young woman named Mariko Abe, who worked for the World Wildlife Federation, got into an argument with an older man, who insisted that whaling was the traditional right of the Japanese and they should be allowed to do it no matter what. Screw it. I took Mariko’s side.

David Good faces similar issues, only much more serious. He sees two little boys get into an argument, whereupon their elders immediately go get wooden blocks and make the kids hit each other in the head with them, repeatedly. This apparently is the tradition. David sees these two poor little fellows bleeding and crying and decides to intervene. The other Yanomami are confused and don’t understand why he stopped the fight. But as a reader I feel he did the right thing. UNLIKE his father decades earlier. (There was a very upsetting scene in which he did nothing and I am telling you right now, that was definitely the WRONG decision.)

A Dangerous Path

David writes honestly, and telling the hurtful parts of his history must have been painful indeed. I have never read a book like this. If you want to know about a little-known Amazon people, the Yanomami are delightful to get to know. Their rainforest home is fascinating to learn about, and of course dangerous.

At one point, David is helping to chop down some trees when a rope comes loose and a branch slashes his eye. He can’t see out of the eye and he can’t even see enough to use his satellite phone. No Western doctor can come to his aid–he’s miles out into the jungle where there are no roads. He is utterly dependent on his Yanomami family to take care of him…and they do. One of his “wives” comes and squirts breast milk into his eye twice a day…and it works! His sight returns, his eye is spared. Wow.

I would give this book 5 Venezuelan jungle-grown plaintains.

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