There was an excellent moment in this book when Conroy realizes he's being an asshole. I kind of really love these moments, because I've had enough of them in my life to know the utter shame and embarrassment and genuine regret of behaving in a way that shows the world what a big asshole I am. I don't necessarily mean to be an asshole, but by thinking I know better than someone else or my cultural/educational/whatever beliefs are somehow better than someone else's, it sometimes happens. This blog is full of those moments, and I sometimes have to eat my words with a healthy dose of foot sauce.
In this case Conroy has discovered exactly how extreme and how ingrained the belief of ghosts is in the people of Yamacraw. He attempts to "cure" some of the children of this belief by telling them a dwarf ghost lives in his house. When the children scream their little heads off he comes to this conclusion:
"I was still not taking their phobia seriously and was trying to think of a way to eliminate this nonsense once and for all. I did not realize that I was not dealing with nonsense but with a culture, a history, and something very kin to religion."Ah, the beginning of understanding. It is a wonderful thing.I myself had the opportunity to experience something like this at a young enough age that I did not in fact have to experience the culinary delight that is me eating my words.
When I was about eight years old we moved to a fairly isolated island out in the Pacific Ocean. While this is not quite the same as an island off the coast of a southern state, it does have its parallels in the sense that Guam developed its own spiritualist culture. It is a culture that is still present today.
While living on Guam I had the privilege of taking a class on the history of Guam. I say it is a privilege because I believe children who are now brought over to the island for tours with their military families all go to the Department of Defense schools, which probably does not include the culture of the area. I feel I actually learned more about Guam than any other place I lived (besides perhaps Germany) because of this class. The teacher instilled a very healthy dose of respect in us for the taotaomoa (tao rhymes with ow in this case). We were told to ask for permission to enter the boonies before ever stepping foot away from civilization. There are very real things in the boonies that can harm you, possibly the most dangerous being the boonie bees, which are pretty ferocious. Check these suckers out, they look as mean as they are.
Rather than scoffing at the very idea of asking some dead ancestors sending overly aggressive bees or angry wild boars my way, I decided to play it safe and take their customs very seriously. I think in the case where you are living in someone else's culture that this is the way to go. It doesn't matter if you think it's silly that someone thinks taking a picture will somehow steal their soul, it's not your soul and you don't mess with something like that. It's too bad that Conroy did not respect this, and honestly having a healthy dose of ghosts and spirits probably serves the very good purpose of keeping villagers close to the village at night. This is very important on islands and other isolated areas that don't have the best access to medical care and may not even have the resources for a full fledged search party. As long as the tradition isn't beating the devil out of a child, I say it's probably okay to allow a native population to keep their beliefs, to even be proud of them, and to respect them while you are in their home and on their homeland.
My review can be found on Goodreads.
LibsNote: Free review copy provided through NetGalley.
If you like memoirs, this is a good one.