The book was inspired by the life of Margaret Mead, author of the unsettling (for the time, 1928) book Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization. Her writing made the point that the way things are is not the way they must or should be: we can choose to live in ways that make us happier and healthier. This then, is the story of husband and wife anthropologists Nell Stone and Schuyler Fenwick studying a blood-thirsty tribe in the Territory of New Guinea in the early 1930’s. They happen upon another anthropologist, Andrew Bankson at a Christmas party in Angoram, and from then on, their stories intertwine. Andrew helps Nell and Fen find another tribe to study after the Mumbanyo. Though separated by a boat trip of seven hours, Bankson visits often enough to make the interactions among the three interesting. The epigraph gives a hint to one of the themes in the book: “Quarrels over women are the keynote of the New Guinea primitive world.” – Margaret Mead
I loved Nell. She was passionate and enthusiastic about her work, but she also had insight that made her a valuable person to bounce ideas off when studying a primitive tribe. When Andrew tells her that his work with the Kiona has been stymied because one woman who could be a valuable resource won’t talk to him, she asked why. “A white man killed her son,” was the explanation. Nell asked if he had made offerings to the woman for the mistake of his kin. Bankson replied, “Those pigs are hardly my kin,” but added that he had given her salt and matches, to no avail. Nell then wanted to know of there was a formal amends ritual. When he said he didn’t know, exasperated, she replied, “You can’t afford to have someone so set against you. Everyone will know it and measure their response to you against it. She’s skewing all your results.” And in this brief exchange, Nell had set Bankson on a course that could open up communiction valuable to his data collection. Nell does things like this repeatedly throughout the narrative. Ultimately, Fen’s frustration with Nell’s fame for having written an award-winning book, leads him to take risks to ensure that he is Nell’s equal in the field of anthropology, and that leads to their abrupt departure to Australia.
Although the tribes and villages in the book are fictional, the author used details from the real tribes Mead studied, making for an interesting look at the life of an anthropologist and the way the natives lived.
The last chapter was very satisfying.
The bark on the cover looked like the trees I saw at the rainbow eucalyptus grove at mile marker seven on the Road to Hana in Maui. It’s relevance to the story is that Bankson’s house was built around a rainbow gum tree (another name for eucalyptus) which came up through the floor and out the roof. Nell was quite taken with it when they first saw Bankson’s house. Who wouldn’t be? Is life not exotic enough living among the Kiona?
When Bankson returned from the Tam village after having been nursed back to health by Nell, he had a note from his friend and lover, Bett. After their initial “greeting ritual,” she grilled barramundi (sea bass) on the bow of her pinnace which they ate with mustard and a bottle of champagne.
Grilled Honey Mustard Sea Bass
Yield: Serves 4
1½ pounds sea bass fillets, about 1 – 1 1/2 inches thick
¼ cup white cooking wine
2 T Dijon mustard
2 T extra virgin olive oil
juice of ½ lemon
½ tsp Worcestershire sauce
½ tsp salt
½ tsp ground black pepper
Combine all ingredients, except fish, in a large mixing bowl. Add sea bass, making sure to coat very well.
Preheat grill for high heat. Remove fish from marinade.
Place fish on the grill. Brush the marinade on top of the fish and cook for 5-7 minutes.
Turn the fish over and apply the marinade and cook for 5-7 minutes, or until fish flakes easily with a fork.
When done, remove from heat and serve.