June 22, 2014

The Shark God by Charles Montgomery

Montgomery went in search of magic.  Well actually he just wanted to trace his ancestor's footsteps, but then his mission quickly became the unknown and magic once he was in Melanesia.  This book, rather than be on comparative religion and travel like I thought it would be, actually read more as a memoir (although to be sure there is religion and travel included).

As a young boy, Montgomery discovered journals from his missionary ancestor and the stories contained within fascinated him enough that he wanted to retrace those steps in history.  Armed with his savings account and a little bit of knowledge on writing in the travel industry, he flies out to the islands in the Pacific to meet with the locals and see if there is any traditional religion left or if everyone had converted to Christianity.  What he found was a surprising mix between the two and a people divided by their beliefs.

While Montgomery fully fleshes himself and his beliefs in the book, I couldn't help but feeling that the local people were left more two-dimensional.  They all had a personality quirk that set them off but their true description was in their religion and that seemed to be what defined them.  Their actual personal lives, hopes, and dreams we never heard much about and so it made it hard to care about their other beliefs.  Mongomery at least was interesting in his own thought exploration and it was interesting to see the goals of his travels change as he progressed through the islands.

The premise was a good one.  He wanted to see what those before him had seen and how the missionaries' work had changed the islands.  But then he started wanting to see the magic side and the customs that the native people gave up in favor of Christianity.  He puts in a lot of detail, but I do think that it starts to get repetitive and drawn out after awhile. Every person's story seemed the same and I felt like I was reading about the same person over and over again.  There were a few standouts; mainly about the missionary Patterson and some of the older stories and I did enjoy those parts of the book.  As for the other stories though I would rather have read more about the landscape and less about the people's betel nut habit.

An ok book.  It has a lot of interesting points from an anthropological standpoint but it presents it in a way that can be quite dry at times.

The Shark God
Copyright 2004
370 pages

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