Book Review: Fieldwork (Sep-Dec 2007)

By Matt Dabbs

by Patty Slack
September – October, 2007

Fieldwork
By Mischa Berlinski
(2007, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 320 pages, hardcover)

David Walker, a missionary in Thailand, was murdered by Martiya van der Leun, anthropologist. But that was twenty years ago. Now Martiya is also dead, yet the question of why she killed him is still very much alive.

When the story teller, a fictionalized version of author Mischa Berlinski, acquires Martiya’s field notes about the Dyalo people, he pursues the murder as a story. The more he learns, the more he is compelled to follow the story to its conclusion or, in this case, its inception.

a story that reads more like non-fiction than fiction (complete with concocted footnotes), Berlinski reveals the complex relationship between tribal people and the outsiders who wish to know them. Anthropologists want the people to stay forever the same; missionaries want to affect change at the heart level; journalists attempt to remain neutral, but rarely are. In a way, it’s a microcosm of how the Christian, the non-religious, and the media interact in America.

Missionaries have a bad reputation in fiction. Consider the over-controlling missionaries in Michener’s Hawaii, or, more recently, Nathan Price of The Poisonwood Bible. His stubborn grasp of the truth wreaks havoc not only on the Africans he wants to reach, but also on his own children.

In contrast, the author of Fieldwork paints the Walker family with a lighter stroke. While acknowledging that missionaries are human and are prone to mistakes and even sin, he portrays them as dedicated, hard-working, and compassionate. The narrator, as journalist, questions the faith of the Walkers, yet finds himself drawn to whatever they have that binds them together and keeps them working on behalf of the Dyalo tribe.

Some might say Berlinski gives too much detail and takes too long to get to the heart of his story. I disagree. I enjoyed the methodical, anthropological feel of this novel as a change of pace. I especially loved reading descriptions of the Dyalo people taken from the anthropologist’s notes. I was able to give in to the illusion that I was reading a piece of non-fiction even as I knew the story was not true.

Fieldwork does not match up with its classification as a thriller. The pace is much too slow to be compared with pulp fiction suspense novels. Rather, it moves at the speed of third-world life. Too slow for some, but a pleasure and relief to others. New Wineskins

Patty SlackPatty Slack is a graduate of Harding University. She and her family spent 7 years as part of a church planting mission in Togo, West Africa. She currently resides in the Pacific Northwest where she home schools her 3 daughters.

 

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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