Friday, June 26, 2009

A Chance to Die: The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael

Amy Carmichael was an Irish missionary in southern India for the first half of the 20th Century. Through the years her books and poems have been quoted to me as examples of a life totally surrendered to Christ. Although attracted to the themes of her writings, I considered myself too practical to want to become acquainted with a Christian of such mystical leanings. Then I hurt my foot badly on a trip and was stuck in a strange apartment with only one remotely interesting book on the shelf, the biography of Carmichael written by Elisabeth Elliot.

A Chance to Die  is a fascinating look at a complex woman. Amy had to have incredible faith and character to go against the cultural norms for missionaries and Indian nationals as she began her ministry of rescuing little girls from becoming temple prostitutes. She was often misunderstood and called “dictatorial” by her critics. But those who knew and loved her used much kinder words. Certainly she was strong-willed, but the overpowering emotion that her “family” felt from her was love. Her standards of holiness and purity were so high that many a missionary recruit was dismissed without much ado, yet her thousands of letters to friends and supporters are filled with absolute kindness and tenderness. She refused to go on missionary furloughs “because the work was too important”, yet she had a rustic cabin built in the hills where she and her workers and orphans could get away to rest. She loved poetry and nature yet eschewed the “untruthfulness” of fairy tales. Her love for truth caused her to write prayer letters which emphasized the hardships of India much more than the victories.

As I read I couldn’t help but think that just as Amy Carmichael took pains to be “nobody”, never allowing anyone to glorify her, only Elliot could have succeeded in writing a book that neither deified nor vilified her. Elliot, in her own book Through Gates of Splendor, shocked me with her adamance that she'd made no difference among the Auca Indians with whom she had worked. She seemed to share Amy's philosophy of life: "Let’s serve the Lord no matter what it costs while never letting anyone know how we’ve suffered. All the victory and the glory belong to Him.”

Quite a motto!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

As a young adult I read almost everything written by Elisabeth Elliot. In several of her books she highly recommends the writings of Danish author, Isak Dinesen. Recently I got my hands on Dineson's Out of Africa  and was quickly plunged into life in Kenya in the early decades of the 20th century.

Dinesen and her husband moved to British East Africa in 1914 where they established a coffee plantation. Even after her divorce seven years later, she continued to run the farm. By then Africa had gotten so deep into her blood that she thought she could never leave. The book recounts her struggles, but more than that it describes her deep love for Kenya and its people. When she finally has to leave the continent she writes it was like being in a stupor of unreality: "It was not I who was going away, I did not have it in my power to leave Africa, but it was [as if] the country was slowly and gravely withdrawing from me, like the sea in ebb-tide."

Dinesen's descriptions of animals can take your breath away: In the Reserve I have sometimes come upon the Iguana, the big lizards, as they were sunning themselves upon a flat stone in a river-bed. They are not pretty in shape, but nothing can be imagined more beautiful than their coloring. They shine like a heap of precious stones or like a pane cut out of an old church window. When, as you approach, they swish away, there is a flash of azure, green and purple over the stones, the color seems to be standing behind them in the air, like a comet's luminous tail. Once I shot an iguana. I thought that I should be able to make some pretty things from his skin. A strange thing happened then, that I have never forgotten. As I went up to him, where he was lying upon his stone, and actually while I was walking the few steps, he faded and grew pale, all color died out of him as in one long sigh, and by the time that I touched him he was gray and dull like a lump of concrete. (p.257)

I love beautiful writing and there is no doubt that Dineson is a gifted story-teller. Nevertheless I felt bogged down in the wordy prose at times. Now that I've read the book I'd like to see the 1985 movie again. The love affair with Denys Finch-Hatton was hollywoodized, but it is true that they had an unusual and deep friendship. And I'd like to hear Dineson's lovely words superimposed on scenes of Africa.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Virginian by Owen Wister

Many years ago I read a delightful book called The Amenities of Book-Collecting . It was written in 1918 by A. Edward Newton, a renowned collector of rare books (and owner of 10,000). In it he lists "One Hundred Good Novels" that every library should contain. Some on the list were already classics at the time and others were "modern" books with potential for fame. I've been intrigued by this list for years, especially by the lesser known books that never lived up to the hoopla. Number 96 was The Virginian by Owen Wister.

Recently I came across a Librivox recording of this book and decided to give it a try. It was narrated by only one reader which is always a plus at Librivox and she did a reasonably good job (though it irritated me when she pronounced the french word "toilette" as "toilet".) There were parts of this book I loved and parts I endured. For one thing this may be the first book I've ever read that was written by a man just for men. The love story was peripheral to the main plot and the worst dialogue in the book came out of the mouth of the female protagonist, Miss Molly Wood. Obviously Owen Wister didn't have the slightest idea how women think! Some of the chapters seemed pasted in like the hilarious stories about Emily the chicken, but apparently this book was formed out of a collection of previously printed stories.

I have mentioned profanity in another post so you might think it odd that I loved the swearing in this book. I loved it because it was there, but scarce. Obviously these were tough-as-nails cow punchers, but most of the expletives were left to the imagination in phrases such as, "He let off a stream of unprintable epithets".

According to Wikipedia the main story line of the book is a "highly mythologized version of the Johnson County War in 1890s Wyoming", a conflict between cattle ranchers and rustlers. Because it was written in 1902 there are several politically incorrect references to African Americans, but interestingly enough a condemnation of the lawless lynchings of Blacks by the KKK. There were moments of brilliance in Wister's writing, but sometimes the story seemed to drag and I wished it to be over.

The Virginian is a powerful story about justice - with a few ideas about equality and religion thrown in. While I did not agree with all of the author's opinions, he did make me think. This book has been made into a movie SIX times and I have enjoyed the recent version with Bill Pullman and Diane Lane. It is fairly true to the book, highlights the romance a little more, and doesn't make Miss Wood look quite as foolish as the book does.