While I was right in that this book definitely wasn’t my norm, and while I may not have liked it in the end, it was definitely worth reading and stepping outside of my box for.
First, I’d like to preface this review by saying I know absolutely nothing about real aboriginal culture or history. I can’t possibly tell you what is fact and what is pure creation by the author. This book is apparently extremely controversial because while some people love it as the tale of a spiritual journey amongst a mysterious native population, other people say that the author didn’t accurately portray the culture truthfully, and was actually blatantly offensive.
I also have no idea if the author actually wanted this book to be taken as a mostly true story, or as just an extensive metaphor, a spiritual fable. It is written in the style of a memoire, and the author writes that it is based on real events, but it is shelved as fiction. Personally, I think that if any of it is actually “based in reality,” its really just an extrapolation of one night she spent camping in the desert and probably got a bit high. Wikipedia states that eventually she conceded that she made the story up, but… well… its wikipedia.
All of that said, I’m not going to evaluate this book on the intentions of its author, or the dubiousness of its origins, but only on the story and the message itself.
This is the story of a typical middle aged american woman who is on business in Australia teaching methods of holistic healing (she mentions acupuncture, therapeutic massage, etc). She is invited to a “meeting” by a native aborigine, and she thinks its her big moment. She thinks she’s going to be recognized for all the good work she’s done trying to help the lower-income mixed race young adults. At heart she is a city woman, and she sits on her high horse expecting to receive a pretty little plaque, a big thank you, and maybe a lunch buffet with some “authentic cuisine.”
Maybe predictable, she quickly finds out that true aboriginal culture isn’t anything like she expected. Still dressed in her business suit, heels and make-up she’s driven out to the edge of the desert, told to remove all her clothing, jewelry and belongings and instead put on a rag dress so that she can be cleansed. Which she does. They then burn all of it, tell her she’s going on a walk-about across Australia to “become one, and experience true beingness,” and promptly head out into the desert on foot. Which she does. She’s afraid and confused, but she follows them, and naively expects to back in the city by check out time at her hotel tomorrow.
What ensues is three months worth of ramblings, physically across the width of Australia, and mentally through various memories she has and spiritual realizations she comes to. It turns out that native aborigines can communicate telepathically, can heal broken bones overnight, and perform illusions to either disappear from sight, or to make one man look like 50 men. What is also mentions, and that I believe may actually be closer to the true culture, is that they can find water nearly anywhere within the desert, can eat just about anything, and have been using natural remedies that are completely unique and unknown to the rest of the world to cure various health problems that keep them surviving and able-bodied to an incredibly old age.
Eventually she finds out that she really is on her way to a meeting, of sorts. When she was born, a similar spirit was born in the exact same moment on the exact opposite side of the earth. She and her kindred spirit made plans to meet again in 50 years and share their experiences. It was her destiny that brought her here. A destiny that even a mysterious fortune teller in the tea-shop in the city told her, but that she just didn’t understand until this moment… Right. It turns out that her companion spirit is the tribal elder, and they share many different things about their cultures, finding similarities and differences in elaborate metaphors. My favorite one: “It seems Mutants [their names for non-aborigines] have something in their life called gravy. They know the truth, but it is buried under thickening and spices of convenience, materialism, insecurity and fear. They also have something in their lives called frosting. It seems to represent how they spend almost all the seconds of their existence in doing superficial, artificial, temporary, pleasant-tasting, nice-appearing projects, and spend very few actual seconds of their lives developing their eternal beingness.”
Eventually they share with her their true secret. The aborigines are leaving the world. When they die, they will become one with the world, they already are one with the world. But the mutant world holds no place for them anymore, so they have stopped having children. They need her to go out into the world, and take to the rest of the Mutants a message, teach them the things she has learned about being and oneness and the true intent of the universe. And so she does.
To be perfectly honest, this book was not for me. I found it over-written, and over-moralizing. It was a soap box of very little support, and distinctly unbalanced and prone to wobbling. I don’t entirely disagree with its message, as a culture we most definitely place too much emphasis on materialistic gain within the short frantic time-span of our own lives. But I believe that taken seriously, this is a fanaticism of the opposite extreme. Growth and change are good and necessary. As well as personal identity, ambition to create, and not to mention will to survive.
In the end, the main character gallops out of the outback on a higher horse than the one she rode in on (metaphorically of course, though she does describe her now calloused feet as “hooves” several times). She is distressed that the local Mutants she tells her story to seem uninterested in her grand philosophies of reincarnation and the one-ness of the universe. She encounters meanness and ugliness in the world that she hasn’t had to deal with in the last three months, but proves to herself that she has grown in “beingness” by not being hurt and instead blessing the person that wronged her. She makes her way home, to a family that wants to hear her story, and with a willingness to tell it to the world.
Basically, if I take this book too seriously, it bothers me very deeply. But if I take a step back, and instead look at the silliness of the adventure of it, at a woman in a situation she is utterly not prepared for but willing to take a go at, its not so bad. I think maybe this story would have been greatly improved if the author had not claimed it was based in reality from the beginning. If she had rather decided to create a completely fictional native culture on a completely fictional world, and instead focused on making the message a subtly built piece of art that didn’t have to worry about offending anyone on the planet we already live on, it might have actually held more meaning. Instead I just felt like she was bashing me in the head with a two by four carved with the message “you suck! aborigines rule!” … or maybe not quite that obviously violet. Maybe instead this book made me feel like I was walking down the street and a slightly graying middle aged new-age hippie is sitting under a tree. And she reaches out her hand, and tries to lure me close with “Come, come smoke pot with me and feel at one with the universe! Here, eat this worm, its good for you. The aborigines do it! They’re right about everything. They’re One. They are Beingness. They’re sooooooo smart and soooooo ancient. I remember this one time….”