BY JOHN TURNER
I haven't yet read but am very much looking forward to digesting Alvyn Austen's prodigious account of the China Inland Mission. Having heard portions of her project at various conferences, I will buy Kathy Long's book on the Waorani and their encounters with American evangelical missionaries as soon as it is released.
Well-researched and well-written histories of American missions are at least as fascinating as any novel. Still, many fine novels have introduced evangelical missionaries into their narratives to great effect. Much of the time, missionary novels feature a "crazy missionary": overzealous and usually hypocritical, such as Nathan Price in Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible.
The missionaries in Mischa Berlinski's recent Fieldwork are overzealous and sometimes hypocritical, but they are much more than stock characters. I picked up Fieldwork on the basis of Mark Walhout's review of the book in the January / February issue of Books & Culture.
In Fieldwork, an American missionary clan spends years in the Asian jungle evangelizing the Dyalo, a tribe resembling the Lisu (a people who converted en masse to Christianity). They might be overzealous, but the Walkers remain winsome. They baptize a pet tiger, and they presume that the Grateful Dead must be saved. Berlinski creatively imagines the rivalry between the Dyalo spirits and missionaries' religion, as he explains in an interview posted on his website:
I tried to imagine what a relief it must have been for them when the Christians came, with the message that Jesus could control the spirits. Jesus, in this way of thinking, was just a more powerful spirit than the others.
Berlinski -- he is also the book's narrator -- is a journalist investigating why an American anthropologist, Martiya van der Leun, murdered David Walker, the missionary family's young rising star. Martiya, who becomes the centerpiece of Fieldwork, succumbs to the anthropologist's insatiable "Curiosity" to fully understand a native ritual (the dyal), abandons her academic career, and permanently lives with the Dyalo. The Walkers are trying to free the Dyalo from the spirits which entrap them. Martiya, by contrast, joins the dyal, apparently becomes possessed, and murders David Walker when his evangelistic efforts threaten the animistic faith she has embraced. Berlinski as the author's narrator also succumbs to a form of Curiosity; he puts his romantic and professional life on hold to solve the riddle of the murder.
Fieldwork is a smart, humorous, and dramatic book. Berlinski's reflections on anthropology and the encounter between missionaries and native cultures are provocative. He succeeds somewhat better at capturing the mentality of the anthropologist than her missionary rivals, though Berlinksi's account of them moves far beyond stereotype. One could hardly blame him, as one of the book's themes is the great difficulty which anthropologists (and, thus, anyone) has understanding both themselves and other cultures. A cautionary tale for historians!
Best of all, Fieldwork is a great yarn which is hard to put down in time for a good night's sleep. I'm looking forward to Berlinski's next novel, evidently about a woman in India who marries a snake.