Reading – from the Congo to Saskatchewan

An island, just off the edge of a continent, in the South China Sea, seems to be a good place to read. Not quite in the same way as in my East African childhood: reading hungrily, about places that seem closer to home than what’s on the other side of town from the leafy “African” suburbs. Not quite as you’d imagine Louis Couperus characters would read, urgently before the Indonesian nightfall, escaping from some ever present unknown tropical danger. But in a calmer more detached way.

Three different spaces in three different times but still interconnected. To begin, Patrick Gale dragging us unwillingly perhaps into A Place Called Winter, the western prairies of Canada; Harper Lee luring us back to Maycomb, Alabama in Go Set a Watchman; and then Barbara Kingsolver drawing us deeper into the forest of the Congo. In a way, all are stories of travel and exile. All are stories of innocence lost.

A Place called Winter tells us the story of a young man, not a brave confident man, but a quiet reclusive type – called Jack. He is a lightly and tenderly sculpted character – a lesser Edwardian gentleman, from a family previously in trade, with only a brother as family, having lost his parents at a young age. The one strong blood relationship, with the brother, is not quite strong enough to withstand the revelation of his homosexuality. It is admittedly discovered in a rather lurid way, through a semi- pornographic diary to his part-time actor lover. His relationships with his wife and daughter though, fortunately never soured, melt away. He moves to the harsh climate of Canada, to places called Cut Knife, the Battlefords and Winter. Through manual farmer’s work he does his penance and purges his soul. As his hands and body get used to the tough work, it feels as if ours do too, as if we could also plough into the icy packed post-winter soil of prairie Canada.

It is also a story of a strong woman, though not the main character, who is bold and tolerant ahead of her time. Not only is she able to accept the relationship of this seemingly gentle soul with her brother, but also to work with the indigenous local community. She is able to have the child of a man who rapes her, and accept no humiliation. Somehow she is the planet in the end that they all revolve round even when she passes away.

Momentarily there is this also a moment of heart-warming love, when Jack and his lover finally meet once again after the war, having both taken the other for dead.

Now, with Go Set a Watchman, first how many of you have actually had the courage to pick it up? Or have you been too nervous to see your childhood heroes destroyed. In some ways, this is the more interesting book – it tries more honestly to address the issues of race, our identities and fears. It turns out that Atticus did entirely believe Jim Robinson and didn’t wish to see a person convicted wrongfully. None of that changes. Though it may seem that Atticus is more driven by the illogicality of a conviction rather than the sense of injustice. He never saw the consenting act as an acceptable thing. And he, like others, worries about the end of segregation, about the vote going to black people. They use lack of education as an excuse for the latter and states rights for the former, and even Scout supports states rights – hard for me to understand but then I think Brexit, and don’t get that either.

If Scout has the dilemma of principles vs family, Scout’s possible fiancé (no longer by the end) has to live with another dilemma, not that uncommon. To have a chance of winning his parliamentary seat he mustn’t risk hurting feelings in his own constituency. None of us are really free agents it seems, or perhaps many of us are cowards and self serving. Scout however survives the book her integrity and our faith in human nature and childhood heroes intact…or at least just about intact.

The Poisonwood Bible to me is the most powerful: this is the story of another adventure into that heart of darkness, this time to baptise the African people. But also to salve the consciousness of a man destroyed by surviving WW2, in the Philippines, whilst all his battalion dies. To make up for his survival, he feels duty bound to do the lord’s work. He takes his family mere appendages to his life with him to be missionaries in the Congo. Before you get to be outraged by neocolonial exploits in the Congo, you are outraged by this. It is the story of the 4 daughters and the mother who have a voice, the preacher remains voiceless, in this book of multiple perspectives.

You can imagine their dislocation – this white American family with teenage daughter looking forward to her high school prom, younger children sipping cream sodas in small town diners. All of a sudden all of that is lost and they are in a small village in the middle of the Congo rainforest, no electricity and hardly a road. They face everything from an invasion of ants stripping anything alive in their way to the death of one of the children by a snakebite. Hard to move on:

“Listen. Slide your weight from your shoulders and move on. You are afraid you might forget, but you never will. You will forgive and remember”

The innocence lost is more about the politics – how the Congo is destroyed, its greatest leader killed – by the post colonialists stripping the Congo of its assets. One of the 4 girls at least is fully aware of what happens. She falls in love and in the end stays on in the Congo to live as an African, giving up the comforts she may have had in the USA.

Some lighter hearted learning for us all:
“I’ve seen how you can’t learn anything when you’re trying to look like the smartest person in the room.”

So a good set of books – I’d recommend them – even if a bit of a roller coaster ride of emotions.