Monday, February 1, 2010

Book Review: Field Work by Mischka Berlinski (the clash of missionaries, anthropologists, and tribal cultures)

FieldworkOver Christmas I read Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski. It was fascinating - a fictional mystery.... sort of.

It's from the perspective of an expat journalist bumming it in Thailand. That perspective alone is interesting to me, because I know there's a lot of people that move to cities in Southeast Asia to take advantage of the tropics, take-it-easy lifestyle and cheap living costs.  I knew some growing up. The journalist hears a story about an anthropologist jailed for the murder of a missionary and begins to investigate.

I was immediately interested. It's a book about Southeast Asia and it investigates the lives, motivations, and beliefs of anthropologists, missionaries, and tribal minority people groups. That's like... the stuff that my entire world revolved around growing up in a similar situation.

I became even MORE interested as I read Berlinsky's description of the missionary family dynasty. It quickly began to sound suspiciously familiar. Turns out it really is her retelling of the TRUE story of missionary Morse family, which began in China, moved into Myanmar, and then into Thailand. It sounded suspiciously familiar because I read Gertrude Morse's (the matriarch of the family) autobiography last year: The Dogs May Bark But the Caravan Moves On. It's a remarkable story, and it was pretty interesting to see the differences between the autobiography and the Berlinsky's retelling of the story. Berlinsky tries to be fair, but coming from the perspective of someone who is not a Christian, it's very hard to sound as though you truly understand the subculture.

Lisu familyThe novel IS pretty gripping as it describes the clash between the missionary and the anthropologist. Both are passionate about their work and about the Dyalo people (which is really just Berlinsky's name for the Lisu people). Both pour themselves so much into their work and beliefs that they can become...well... a little crazy from the perspective of outsiders. The book delves into the spiritual realm of things without making any judgements.

While the book was great, it delves into the perspective of real life missionaries and anthropologists but doesn't go into the perspectives of the tribal people themselves. I think an excellent book to read with this is one of my favorites read in 2008: The Spirit of the Rainforest: A Yanomamo Shaman's Story by Mark Ritchie. Ritchie went down to the Yanomao people, one of the most researched people groups in the anthropological world, and also one that has been reached by both Catholic and Protestant missionaries. Ritchie did in-depth interviews with a Yanomao shaman who saw the his tribe reacting and changing with the entrance of the missionaries and anthropologists. The shaman converted to Christianity, but his perspective on what was happening is entirely unWestern. It delves into the spiritual realm in ways that we pretty much deny being possible, and yet it is the first-hand opinion and stories of a tribe leader. I think his perspective is invaluable if you really want to understand this kind of clash of cultures and beliefs.

Working on the land


Togenberg said...

LOVED the book. I just read it last fall. So smart, pithy and readable. Really cool and def a rare achievement.

Chanz said...

I think I will read this for sure... sounds interesting..