I took an anthropology survey course as an undergraduate that greatly affected me. The professor had done his field work in the Amazon and his affection for the tribe he lived with and studied was contagious. On the other hand, as part of the class, we were assigned several monographs – studies of cultures written in the objective style required of the discipline – which put me to sleep. These writings had no life in them.
The same cannot be said for THE WAY AROUND, and maybe that is because the author, while the son of an anthropologist, is not one himself and thus not constrained by the requirements of the discipline. Rather, this book is so heartfelt and so unique that it is hard to recommend it too highly.
The author's father, Kenneth Good, went to the Amazon to study the Yanomami tribe in the 1970s. The tribe was not entirely uncontacted – there had been missionaries in the area for some time – but they still lived their traditional life, uninfluenced by the cultural patterns of the “outside” world.
Kenneth Good, as it happened, fell in love with a Yanomami girl, married her, and took her back to New Jersey, where he was still working on his doctorate. They had three children together, but in the end, she was unhappy with North American life, and, on a trip back to the Amazon, she refused to leave and return to the States with her husband and children. The author, the eldest of the three children, was five at the time, and he wasn't to see his mother again for another twenty years.
In the intervening years, he tried his best, understandably, to deny his jungle roots and the mother who, he felt, had rejected him. He invented a story that his mother had been killed in a car crash. But as he grew up, more and more alienated from himself and his origins, he finally realized he had to go back to the jungle he knew only from a visit as a young child and find his mother. This book is the story of that reunion.
The success of most memoirs depends more on the way the story is told than on the story itself. This one is different: it would be hard to imagine how this fascinating story could be ruined by poor telling. In fact, though, Good does succeed in arranging the complicated elements of his story in an intriguing and engaging way. Although the explanations he gives for some events don't seem quite complete or satisfactory, mostly these are minor events.
One of the myths most Westerners believe is that once indigenous people come in contact with our culture, they succumb. So it was interesting and heartening (even though her children paid a price) to learn that Good's mother wanted to go back to jungle life – that the simple life she knew was where she thrived. And yet, reading the last chapter of Good's book puts this idea in perspective. Good tells us that his mother's village is one of the most traditional ones left, and that many young Yanomami, like indigenous people everywhere surrounded by a very different, dominant culture, feel alienated and inferior.
I remember my anthropology professor saying, “If you want to go to the Amazon, go now,” because he knew that the hitherto uncontacted tribes were being contacted more and more, and that their cultures were changing. This is shown to be only too true. And it is ironic that Good himself, as a “half-breed,” is both a product of and a manifestation of this infiltration. But the purity of the life he describes should give all of us pause. He reflects:
“The best illustration of this [simplicity] is probably the clearheaded way I would wake up each morning while I was in the jungle. [W]ith the jungle mind-set, what was there to think about, really? If I was hungry, I went off in search for food. If I was tired, I rested. If I was exposed to the elements, I built a shelter. If I ran out of firewood, I went out and collected some more.”
Life, he seems to say, really can be simple and pure – and that people can know happiness without all the trappings of civilization.