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The Shark God: Encounters with Ghosts and Ancestors in the South Pacific Paperback – October 15, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Montgomery's great-grandfather Henry was an Anglican missionary in the South Pacific at the end of the 19th century, and his book, The Light of Melanesia, recounted the horrors of heathen life and the attempts to bring "One True God" to the islands. Curious as to whether the missionaries or spirits ultimately triumphed, Canadian writer Montgomery sought the real history of the islands. His plan was to follow his great-grandfather's route through the South Pacific. He writes, "I would cross the reefs and wade to shore on Nukapu [in the Solomon Islands]... where history and myth would be made utterly clear to me by someone very old and wise." Montgomery makes his disbelief—in both the religion of his great-grandfather and that of the Melanesians—quite plain. Yet he grapples with his doubt and longs to understand the mystical nature of the natives. With exquisite writing, Montgomery lovingly captures the beauty and the horrors, the mysteries and the shams of the people and places he visits. His is a skeptical eye, and Montgomery is resistant to the miracles the people wish to show him, which admittedly are not terribly convincing, but he doggedly persists, seeking to be convinced of something, anything. (July)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Montgomery's great-grandfather was the Right Reverend Henry Hutchinson Montgomery, a missionary bishop who had lived on the islands of Melanesia. The author discovered a book that the bishop had left, which contained faded monotones of black men clutching spears and photographs of bare-chested women. The book contained an account of a journey made more than a century ago, cataloguing the horrors of perilous missionary work. Dozens of traders and evangelists had been murdered on the shores of the islands that were scattered across 1,200 miles of ocean between Fiji and New Guinea. The unluckiest ones were cooked and eaten. Montgomery went to these islands to probe the bond between faith and magic. He found that the inhabitants had infused Christianity with the sorcery and shark spirits of their ancestors to invent a pantheon of new gods. The author's documentation and analyses of these people and their world is a haunting reading experience. George Cohen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
Most impressive, however, is Montgomery's wrestling with his Christian past, his atheist present, and the subtle and complicated reality of religion on the islands. Montgomery is clearly hungry for something more than the scientific world around him, but he demands scientific proof in order to find it. Only in his encounter with the indigenous Christian priests does he find out the truth of religion might be something else than miracles and spirits - it might just be sacrificial love.
If there is a pivotal point in this book, it is the 1871 "murder" of Bishop John C. Patteson. The bishop seems to have died happy - martyrdom has an appeal to some religious folk. The century following may have justified his bizarre view, since his death has become a symbol to the local people. For one thing, they are able to brag that "we don't kill white folks any more". The author has some reason to doubt this claim as he travels through Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. He has trouble separating the various Christianities spread throughout the islands. A good many of them are still practising various forms of ancient witchcraft as part of their new religious activities.
Montgomery sets himself a quest to find Melanesian witchcraft in its pure form. This is easier told than accomplished, since today's missionaries, and many of their converts, hunt down the practitioners. Sometimes with violence. The islanders, however, have a long warrior tradition supporting their activities and working out winners and losers is challenging. Still, for him to unearth the ancient practices, he must trek deep into mountain hideaways, convince those claiming to hold special powers that he won't reveal them to Christian authorities, and come away unscathed. If the Melanesians don't do him in, the weather is always waiting for its own chance. "Getting there is half the fun" as the author haunts docks and ships seeking elusive transport. Ships run weekly, monthly, or when fuel money is produced. His persistence ought to be worth some kind of award.
His luck might be due to some recognition, as well. In the islands, the witchcraft Montgomery seeks is based on "mana". Mana is the life force and may be transferred from one human to another - by head hunting [cognitive scientists take note]. The more exalted the victim, the greater the mana. The missionaries, and the military forces they frequently called in to support them, sought to quell the practice. Their substitution was "Christian love", which often took a beating when the islanders objected to their land being taken or their wives and daughters raped. Montgomery laces the history of missionary work with his personal account seamlessly. Daily confronting the results of what the missionaries imposed [this book was originally titled: "The Last Heathen"] Montgomery's scepticism of their work can only be enhanced. Belief, however, is an immense force among humans. Montgomery realises he cannot dismiss it thoughtlessly. The result of his quest results in a fascinating essay on what "religion" has come to mean to the Pacific Islanders. It's far from what the missionaries intended - and intend - but it's demonstrably real. The book is a valuable social commentary, both about the Pacific islands and our own culture. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]