Barbara Kingsolver

Thatha has been telling me for years to read The Poisonwood Bible. This is embarrassing but I was repulsed by the name and did not even look at the book. I fell over it the other day (because all the books in this house is waiting in one room on the floor for me to bring bookshelves) and was still reluctant. Then I saw another Barbara Kingsolver under it called Animal Dreams which seemed interesting. And so it was, spectacularly so.

When one of the main characters, Hallie, is in college she makes friends with a group of Central Americans and slowly joins a network of people who hide Central American refugees in their own homes. Eventually, Hallie moves to Nicaragua to help people revive their fields and farms. We never meet Hallie directly, only through the memories of Cody her older sister and through the letters she sends Cody. I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

The book is set like most of Kingsolver's books in Tucson, Arizona and explores ethical choices, ecological issues and ideas of happiness.  Its a gripping, deeply romantic book with a strong utopian streak (and I mean utopian not in a contemptuous way, just that it has a vision of an ideal world.)  And as I read, page after page, I had a strange deja vu feeling. I remembered a fragmented conversation with an American woman at a party two years ago. She was in her late 50's and very serene and amiable among a crowd of young, high-strung (though amiable) people from all parts of the world. I noticed she spoke fluent Spanish and Portugese and asked her about it. Then she told me about a movement that she had been part of when she was much younger.

Now the thing is. with the internet and wikipedia, I constantly feel like I know everything or at least know three separate facts about everything in the Western world. It poked huge holes in my smugness when I had to confess never having heard of the Sanctuary movement.  The background to the Sanctuary movement is the period in American history when anything that smelled communist was automatically evil, allowing President after President to fund oppressive military regimes in San Salvador and Nicaragua simply because they were stamping down Marxist groups. Further, billions of dollars were pumped into the School of the Americas where guerillas were trained to support these repressive governments. They acted as death squads, often assassinating those who opposed the regimes publicly and those who asked the US to end its funding of the juntas. This went on for decades and decades until the US found new butterflies to torture. This part of the story I remembered dimly from some text book or the other.

What the woman at the party told me was far, far more interesting. She said that as a young woman she and many others reacted to their outrage over the situation in Central America by taking direct action. Refugees, particularly, mothers and children from El Salvador and Nicaragua were smuggled into the US often on foot through Mexico and across the border, they were moved from house to house in a network of supporters. The woman in the party managed to help a couple of families hide in plain sight.  This was possible because of slightly strange angle. The network was supported by hundreds of Christian denominations in the US, who spread the word of the role of the US in supporting torture and assassinations.  Many people who received sanctuary were found and deported by the US and several of the people who supported them were arrested. The people that The Woman at the Party gave sanctuary to were lucky. As she and her family learnt Spanish, the San Salvadorans learnt English, managed to find identification papers to legally emigrate to Canada.

In this Barbara Kingsolver book the Sanctuary movement is very much in the background and is never mentioned by name but here is what I found out. The Sanctuary movement started in Tucson, Arizona the centre of Kingsolver's fictional universe.  As it has been for many years of the Bush administration, the media then wrote whatever did not rock the apple-cart and the situation in Central America remains extremely difficult. The Woman at the Party tells me that Americans from the movement still go to Central America, like Hallie with only a change of clothes, their courage and their skills. The internet is showing an unusually close-mouthed tendency but hints that the movement may be still alive. It is rare that I feel kindly disposed to Americans but this was one of those moments.

PS. I did a review of Sarnath Banerjee's new book The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers for Outlook last week. You can read it here.



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