This book was the 2nd Peter Mathiessen book I read (after reading his superb "Sand Rivers") and it's images have stuck with me ever since. Those first two books of his that I read made me a fan of this author's works and I still am after more than a dozen more books.
What Mathiessen provides in this tome is a two year look at a vanishing society. Much to his dismay, but to Christianity's delight, the missionaries were on their way to the locale of his book at the time he was leaving New Guinea. "Under the Garden Wall" provides photographs and livid descriptions of this so-called "Stone Age" society. The author has saved this society in perpetuity by this book.
The descriptions were honest, not lurid or sensational. He described the way the people lived without embellishment. It is a good read because Matthiessen was and is a superb wordsmith, the author cared about these people and their ways were foreign but their motiviations familiar.
Any student of sociology, anthropology and/or history is aware of the driving force of sex, and the tendencies toward violence, in all societies. To the extent these were present amoung the subjects of his study, he reported on them.
Ritual mutilation is one of the most offensive subjects covered, but, again, any student of the aforementioned three disciplines is aware of various and sundry forms of ritual mutilation practiced by many peoples presently, historically and pre-historically. On this offensive custom Matthieson reports objectively.
One of the beauties of this particular book is that Mathiessen, who has a tendency to push his personal beliefs, strays from the objective only in his handling of the coming of the Christian missionaries. He states his belief that it is more important to preserve the culture, while the Christians would counter that is is more important to preserve their souls. Even his comments on his own opinions were inoffensive except to the most fundamentalist of Christians because his point, though wrong in their eyes, is well formulated and stated.
This is a terrific read about a fascinating subculture saved for posterity by Mr. Mathiessen. I wish I could rate this as a 9 out of 5 to make up for the other review of this book.
If you are a fundamentalist Christian, parts of this book may aggravate you and you may not want to read this. If you are squeamish about viloence and some sexuality in a real setting, you may not want to read this. To anyone else with any interest in sociology, anthropology and/or history, order this book, now.
If you are a student of anthropology, doesn't one of the rituals practiced by the people in this book give an explanation for some "mysterious" cave paintings from central France about 20,000 years earlier?
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