on November 25, 2001
This novel is the story about the impact of outsiders on a tribe of Indians in the Amazon. Essentially two facets of the outsiders (read Western Civilisation) that are explored � the �sacred� in the form of missionaries, and the �profane� in the guise of mercenaries. Their stories told in alternating chapters, Lewis Moon and Martin Quarrier both have a purpose in mind - both feel that they can �save� the locals that are yet to come in full contact with Western Civilisation. Moon is part Native American, and at the beginning of our story he is a mercenary hired to kill the Indians. On a drug induced flight, he crashes into the jungle and ingratiates himself into the �wild� Indian tribe. His relationship with the tribe is really an extension of his life so far � he doesn�t quite fit in, no matter what he does. Quarrier is an evangelical missionary who has travelled with his wife and child to bring the word of God to Indians. Very early on, however, Quarrier has doubts about his own suitability, and then the broad-spectrum suitability of anyone using trickery to force a belief on the Indians. This brings him into conflict with his co-missionary, who is a stereotype of all that is wrong in the missionary movement � this character is a man more interested in his own personal reputation and the number of souls he has saved (or it looks like he has saved) than genuine results.
This is a well written exploration of �missionaries and misfits� on the edges of civilisation. We have comparisons of Catholics and Evangelicals; comparisons between missionaries who are there for the greater glory of God (or the idea of God at least) and for the greater glory of their own name; and the attempts by different outsiders to �save� a tribe from other outsiders, with more concerns for their own agendas than the welfare of those they are trying to save. Oh, and there is some amazingly insightful writing about interpersonal relationships to boot.
What I liked best about this book was that Matthiessen spared nobody � unlike some novels of this genre, the Indians are not simple �noble savages� � some are cleverer than others; the Indians aren�t all environmentally friendly, in-tune with nature good-guys (Moon takes them for task for their wasteful practices, but they don�t care)and Matthiessen takes the time to explain the motivations of his characters, something that can be sorely lacking in some novels.
I would recommend this book to anyone who likes a good novel. For those with an interest in the specific topic area (the Amazon, 'Western' culture meets 'natives', missionaries) there is a lot here (if you liked Poisonwood Bible, i you would probably like this). But even if this is not an area you would naturally gravitate to, i would recommend it on the basis of Matthiessen's great writing alone.One point - the first 4 -6 chapters can be hard going, but stick with it - things pick up. It was for these first chapters that i docked a star (would have given it 4.5 stars if possible).
on November 24, 1999
Not since the reading of Huxley's "Brave New World" have I read such a powerful and ironic novel as that of "At Play In The Fields of The Lord". This book is a first rate masterpiece! Its subtle irony and dramatic content are the creation of literary genius. Rarely have I ever found an author whose work so moves me to not merely observe the characters, but instead BECOME the characters. Indeed, as the book's storyline progresses, the reader is drawn into a web of spiritual doubt and political corruption which leads the reader to question his own faith, morals, and even deeds. After all, at least once in our lives we shall become Lewis Moons for at least a brief moment. Whether this fleeting instance destroys an Amazonian culture or simply estranges your inlaws depends upon that person's individual circumstances. In the end, the reader *becomes* each of the novel's characters as we struggle to discover our purpose & self identity. In the end, it is the reader who is left asking, "Why?"
on March 31, 2006
One might not expect a naturalist explorer to be capable of weaving a dynamic, emotional, and gripping narrative on par with some of the best fiction writers of the last century, but that's exactly what Peter Matthiessen accomplished with At Play in the Fields of the Lord. His writing is strongly influenced by his extensive travels, and this, his fourth novel, is imbued with a particular verve. Set in the Amazon, the tale weaves in and out of the untamed jungle, featuring some of the most compelling and conflicted characters I've encountered.
Martin Quarrier, his wife Hazel, and their son Billy have left their comfortable midwestern life to join Protestant missionary Leslie Huben and his wife in their ongoing struggle to convert an elusive local tribe, the Niaruna. Martin's respect for and interest in the tribal cultures encourages a different approach to conversion than the evangelical Leslie, and matters quickly become complicated when the local authorities (with Leslie's implicit approval) enlist the aid of two American ex-patriot mercenaries to bomb the tribes into submission. One of these is Lewis Moon, a half Chayenne Indian with a dark past who, under the influences of the powerful psychotrope ayahuasca, eventually decides to join the Niaruna and reclaim something of his lost dignity and sense of identity. Ultimately, the Niaruna are caught amongst the Protestant missionaries, the Catholic "opposition," the local authorities, and partial-converts from other tribes; it is essentially a conflict no one can win.
The narrative weaves between Martin and Moon's perspectives, as each comes to grips with their own inner conflicts about faith and identity. Matthiessen breathes further life into this story with a colorful, and very real cast of supporting characters. The ex-patriot mercenary Wolf, self-described "Anti-Se-mite Jew" and former compatriot of the disappeared Moon provides the occasional black humor. Matthiessen portrays Hazel's gradual disintegration with a frightening realism, building the books cumulative tension effectively. Leslie Huben, with his evangelical fervor and golden boy demeanor, becomes an unexpected antagonist as Martin struggles with his own faith.
Matthiessen's treatment of the Niaruna and the other Brazilian cultures is realistic and sympathetic without being pandering or idealistic, where the aboriginals are portrayed niether as heathens or as noble savages. He approaches questions of faith, culture, morality, family, and spirituality with an understated ability without becoming mired in existentialism. His narrative is simultaneously raw and elegantly constructed, and is both an exotic and intimate read. At Play in the Fields of the Lord isn't mere travel fiction; it is a complex character study with a suspenseful, driven plot, and a thought-provoking examination of mission work. Matthiessen scrutinizes evangelical Christianity through a very sharp lens, and the faith of the individual missionaries remains complex and fascinating even to a non-believer. The novel's perspective on Christianity is a critical one, but is personalized through the actions of individuals without being universally condemning.
The writing is comfortable and easily digested, while still evoking the complex themes and moods that make this novel so successful. The oppresive atmosphere, the sense of fear and uncertainty, the primeval jungle; all are richly evoked on these pages. It is a heartbreaking, rewarding, thought-provoking, and ultimately haunting read.
on January 23, 1999
One theme I found to be particularly compelling in this book which has not been directly explored in the reviews currently posted is the search for identity which seemingly each character in this novel is engaged. Lewis Moon, a man who existes on the fringe of the dominant culture of the US, longs for validation in the culture of his ancestors, a culture which is tragically unavailable. The missionaries, Protestant and Catholic alike, seek identity and validation in the people they seek to convert, including the endless "conversion" of their own families. The other characters have their own identity issues. The most compelling of these searches, to my mind, was that of Lewis Moon who, without any feeling of loyalty to any culture available to him, seeks identity in an indiginous culture not yet eradicated by the dominant Chilean culture of European origin. (Perhaps he thinks he can help them avoid the fate of the culture of his ancestors.) The novel explores each character's basis for self-perception and what they do when their basic assumptions about their role in the world are challenged. What does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to be an American who has had his citizenship revoked? What does it mean to have faith? What if the dogma of your denomination appears to produce results that seem "un-Christlike?" What does it mean to indentify as a member of an indigineous people? What does that mean when you are among members of another indiginous people? All these questions (and there are many more) posed in the book have lead me to a better perception of who I am and why I think so. One of the best books I've had the pleasure to have read.
on December 29, 2000
I've always been a bit of an escapist, so this book was perfect for me. Peter Mattiessen is actually a travel writer, well qualified to describe the South American rain forest setting. What surprises is how well he conveys the brutal reality of what might befall us, should we find ourselves sitting at a rickety wooden table at La Concepción Taverna at the end of a mud street in the jungle.
You will find yourself in the strangest company. It's hard to tell the savages from the decent white folk. The Missionary's wife appears to be losing her mind. The natives are restless. The mercenaries passing through town. You are about to meet Lewis Moon and, for some reason, you will not be able to look away.
This is a disturbing book, no-one is spared, not even the reader.
I have previously read and reviewed four other books by Peter Matthiessen, all of which I thought were fine books and to which I gave four stars. But I never quite thought of them as works of pure genius, not until I read this book. Here, Matthiessen's writing is so exquisite, nuanced and daringly spot-on that one scarcely knows how to describe it. He writes like an an angel or dæmon swooping down upon the South American jungle landscape and deep into the inner lives of those who populate it with a searing lyrical torch. I've never read anything quite like it.
The setting could not seem more banal or clichéd: hypocritical evangelists, a jaded Catholic priest, primitive Indian tribes, a corrupt Spanish officer etc. But Matthiessen sets them all to dancing through dark and light, death and life in this book.
He describes the Spanish cathedral as seen though the eyes of a Protestant missionary's wife thus:
"Though she knew no Latin, the priest's ritual voice in the unearthly light evoked half-memories of illuminated manuscripts, of fat abbeys and round-pated monks, fair countrysides and far cathedrals against towering windy skies crossed by dark birds."
and he describes the jungle as seen by a missionary thus:
"He had wandered into a cathedral of Satan where all prayer was abomination, a place without a sky, a stench of death, vast somber naves and clerestories, the lost cries of savage birds - he whooped and called, but no voice answered."
But, most of all, he describes the world as seen by Lewis Moon, the anti-hero of the book, with a frightening, magical sharpness, as when he parachutes into the jungle here:
"He blinked, in tears; he was alive again, laughing idiotically in the clean sunlight of the upper air, legs dangling and swaying like the legs of a rag doll, drifting, drifting down through the great morning, in a wild silence like the wake of bells."
I quote so extensively because it's simply impossible to convey the power of the book without putting its unearthly lyricism on display. Matthiessen is also a naturalist, of course, and his descriptions of the environment are as precise as his writing is ensorcelling, as profound as the depths to which he takes the readers into the souls of his characters.
I don't know what else I can say save to urge every lover of literature to please, please don't let your life end without first reading this coruscating work of highest art.
on August 20, 1997
This book carried me WAY beyond the story line, using the questionable character of Lewis Moon as transportation. The well-meaning Quarriers were as lost and out of place in the jungle as the natives would have been if you dropped them off somewhere between 42nd Street and Central Park. And the death of the innocent child is a sacrifice to that ignorance.
The journey of Lewis Moon away from civilization into the native life represents two things--a retreat from the sophistication of a society to which he did not seem to belong, and a search for an ultimate truth. As he penetrates further and further into the jungle, he comes closer and closer to the heart of life itself, and closer ultimately to death. This story is a mystery to which you have to write your own ending, and I dearly loved reading it!
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the juxtaposition of humor and tragedy, and the complicated contradictions of the human spirit
on December 9, 2005
I'm actually nearly 30, but I don't have an Amazon account so disregard the "kid" title. Before I read Matthiessen's work, I was a very very devout christian. I lived the "truth" as I believed it to be. I led a christian youth group at my high school, I was a member of a christian rock band and I was eagerly anticipating my mission trip to New Guinea, until I read At Play In the Fields of the Lord.
A small group of American protestant missionaries venture into a dangerous and deep section of the Amazon rainforest to succeed where their Catholic rivals failed, who were killed by the people they were trying to convert. The result is a clash of civilizations and ideals, between the missionaries and the indians and even between the missionaries themselves and the indian tribe as well. The end result was one of the most sobering things I've ever read in my life.
My question is, why? Why do we westerners feel the need to travel far beyond the reaches of our own nations to selfishly and arrogantly proselytize people who's only crime is being too geographically removed from the Middle East to know of a person we revere as a god? Why does it have to be this way? Why can't we just respect another's way of life? In all good conscience, I could not be a missionary after reading this book. If anything, it strengthened my love toward my fellow man and woman more than my church did because it taught me to live and let live.
I urge others with similar dilemmas to explore this book. Its not pretty, but the truth must be told.
on October 21, 1998
I disagree with the above reviews, and I guess I'll say why. First this is not a book only about "male behavior"--Hazel and Andy are equally important, and their behavior turns the whole narrative around. I also don't find Moon to be an anti-hero who represents truth or is sympathetic in any way. He joins the Indians out of the sadly egotistic feeling that he can fool them into thinking he is a God. That's not respect, brother. Of course, he can't do it for long. Mostly, this is a book about getting in way over your head: that's the one trait every character shares (even the Indians). They are all being drawn into a situation out of their control, out of their element. One question: why the gender-reversal in the names of Leslie and Andy? (I realize Leslie is a male name in England, but Huben is AMerican, and 'Andy' isn't a female name anywhere with that spelling). I'd be interested to know, Peter, if you're reading. Mostly, this is the kind of novel that creates a wolrd so removed from our own, that it ends up BEING our own. I liken it to Robert Stone's 'A Flag for Sunrise' and Naispul's 'A Bend in the River' (about English-speaking foreigners in Central America and Africa respectively) Why doesn't the director who filmed 'The English Patient' film this?
on June 12, 2003
In Matthiessen's At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Lewis Moon, the mysterious and elusive mercenary with a good heart, steals every scene in which he appears. The story, in a nutshell, concerns the clash between 4 forces in a remote South American jungle reason: misguided Christian missionaries, corrupt local politicians, the near Stone Age jungle natives, and Lewis Moon. Beautiful progress of a story in which it's hard at any moment to know who to root for, a story in which no one really comes out a winner, and therein lies the moral.