Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, by Christina Thompson*****

Christina Thompson is the author of Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, which I read and loved. I was thrilled when I saw that she was about to publish another book, and even more so when I found a review copy; thanks go to Edelweiss and Harper Collins. This book is for sale now.

For centuries, Western scholars have tried to tease apart the many unknown aspects of Polynesian history. The islands are spread across an area of the Pacific Ocean (and beyond) so large that all of the Earth’s landmasses could fit into it, and there would still be room for an extra one the size of Australia. And yet there’s undeniable evidence that they navigated from one to another in canoes, without compasses or written maps of any kind. How the heck did they do it?

Thompson discusses the early European efforts, from the ‘discovery’ of various islands—and she points out that Europeans jealously guarded information, and so British explorers didn’t benefit from what the Spanish found, for example, and vice versa—to present day. She talks about the differing points of view, languages, and cultural divides that prevented the white folk from understanding what islanders were trying to tell them, and from believing that they knew as much as they did. As far as I can tell, Thompson is the first Caucasian writer to approach this subject with respect for the islander peoples about whom she is writing; her husband and sons are of Maori descent, and so for her, this connection merges the academic and the personal.

The thing that makes Thompson so readable is her wry take on the errors made by those that came before—mostly the Westerners that approached the area with paternalism tinged with more than a little racism in many cases. I’ll be reading along and thinking yes yes, this is interesting…and then I’ll come across a remark and reread it—did she just say what I think she just said? And then I am laughing out loud. Find me a geographer, an anthropologist, a sociologist that can do that. In particular, her unpacking of the whole Kon-Tiki debacle is unmissable.

If I could change anything, it would be to have been able to read this before I went into teaching instead of after retirement. I taught a lot of Islander kids, and the wisdom is that when we teach American history, we incorporate the history of each ethnic group represented in the classroom. I knew how to include my African-American students, and I knew what to tell kids of Chinese and Japanese backgrounds. I had material for my Latino kids. But with my Islander students, all I could do is say that I had truly tried to find information for them, but what little I found was so deadly dull and written at such a high literacy level that it wouldn’t work for them. And what would really kick ass is if this writer, at some lull between high-powered academic projects, could write something for children or young adults of Maori descent. Right now, English-speaking Pacific Island kids have one Disney movie. That’s it.  

This book is highly recommended to every reader with post-high-school literacy ability and stamina. It’s a cultural treasure, and though I rarely do this with galleys, I will go back and read this again, because there’s no way to take it all in the first time, even when making notes.

What a wonderful find.  

The Oregon Trail: An American Journey, by Rinker Buck *****

theoregontrailBuck is a journalist and author who replicated (to the extent possible in modern times) the covered wagon crossing of the old Oregon Trail, much of which still contains the original wagon ruts. A creature of the Pacific Northwest myself, I thought I had the whole Oregon Trail story down cold, but I learned a lot from Buck’s wonderful memoir, which threads his own experience with the historical information he gleaned from a variety of sources into a fluent, fascinating, accessible yet hyper-literate narrative. My great thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for the ARC. The book will be available to the public in August of this year.

Buck discusses his experience, and the book, here:

The germ of Buck’s idea to travel the old Oregon Trail in a covered wagon came from a favorite childhood experience. Buck’s father took his large family on a covered wagon vacation during the late 1950’s. They traveled in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and it is one of the author’s fondest memories. His brother Nick, who sounds like a real character, decided to join him on this adventure, and their skills complemented each other wonderfully in most instances, with Rinker having done a great deal of research and put up the considerable sum it took to buy the wagon, the mules, and so forth, and Nick having a wealth of eclectic knowledge about covered wagons and mules as well as tremendous mechanical aptitude in general.

Our author is one hell of a writer. His down to earth metaphors made his story accessible for modern people. For example, he says that the Conestoga wagon was the semi truck of the mid-1800s while the prairie wagon used by most families, which was made by Sears Roebuck, Studebaker, and John Deere, were more like the station wagon. The whole narrative is peppered with this sort of figurative language, and it’s both amusing and helpful. And I loved seeing the ways in which the problems of the early pioneers often became his problems also, sometimes in ways that would have halted an ordinary traveler right then and there. But Rinker and his brother are serious badasses, and they kept on going.

Think for a moment how high up the driver’s seat on a covered wagon is, for example, and how immensely soporific the repetitive clopping of hooves are on a very warm spring day. There is no safety belt; there is nothing whatsoever to keep a man from falling off and being crushed beneath the wagon.

Narcissa Whitman, one of the early settlers who together with her husband, founded the Whitman mission in Eastern Washington (part then of the Oregon Territory) made the trip on horseback. But she had no safety belt either.

The Mormons, or Latter Day Saints, did a whole lot of it on foot and pushing carts; those that lived through the experience populated Utah. But I agree with Buck that Devil’s Gate was not solely part of the Mormon experience, and President Bush had no business turning federal park lands over to the LDS Church. Frankly, it steams my clams all over again just writing about it…moving on.

I also have one small bone to pick with Buck’s research, though it isn’t enough to lop a star off my rating: he says that the 400,000 pioneers that crossed the Oregon Trail was the greatest overland migration in history. To be fair, when he wrote this, it was widely accepted as truth. But in 2010, Isabel Wilkerson documented an overland migration of 6 million African-Americans from the South to Northern Industrial cities and also to California between 1915 and 1970. The Oregon Trail, then, may be the second largest, but not the largest.

I also might have liked to see a citation accompany controversial facts tossed in, such as the claim that it was covered wagon makers, not Henry Ford, who started the mass assembly line. Generally I liked the flow of the text made possible by avoiding footnotes, but if one is going to butcher a sacred cow, one should back the assertion with a source.

But all these things are minor compared to the value, both in education and entertainment provided by the story of the Rinker brothers’ modern day reenactment, which is nothing short of spellbinding. I had just begun it when I came down with a case of flu, and I can’t tell you how comforting it was to curl up under my covers with my glass of orange juice and this book and immerse myself in their journey, which commenced in Missouri and like the original pioneers, continued across six states. And although I have never done the trail itself (and if I were to do so, I’d be one of the Winnebago set that made him half-crazy with their giant rigs that spooked the mules and their never-ending cameras winking at him and blocking his way), I have driven through all of the states he crossed through except Kansas.

It was useful to have traveled through most of the region that Buck described, yet his descriptions were so palpable that I think even if you have never been there and never plan to, you will see much of it in your mind’s eye.

I’m not sure what is the most remarkable part of this wonderful memoir: the novel aspect of the covered wagon trip during the 21st century, or Rinker’s voice, which switches seamlessly from that of historian, to that of family member with family issues, to that of the humorist who can appreciate life’s ironies even in adverse circumstances. All I know is that you don’t want to miss out on this one. What a terrific story!