Albert Flynn DeSilver was not always a beamish boy. If this book were fiction rather than memoir, the opening chapter is enough to make you wonder if he’d live long enough to even flicker. After getting my attention, DeSilver deftly backtracked to describe his emotionally bleak childhood in the Bell Tower, an architecturally unique abode with an abundance of bats — in the belfry and elsewhere — under the wary eye of “Das Hell Frau,” otherwise known as Miss Hedy, the family’s German-Swiss governess from Zurich. Not surprisingly, DeSilver fell in early with friends who had easy access to alcohol, beginning his downward spiral. His slide into binge drinking/drugs/sex blurs into similar stories found in an abundance of recovery memoirs.
Although his decline and many predicaments are predictable, a quick look at the Table of Contents is enough to show that his adventures and perspective are not. Who else attended Camp Pummelton or East Jesus Junior High? He goes from a Rocky Mountain Low to a Balcony in Africa. When in Doubt, he Joined a Cult. Later he had A Date With the Dalai Lama in Central Park.
What sets this book apart, far more than the unique path DeSilver found for eventual redemption, are the subtly compassionate humor with which he softens the account of his own and his family’s fundamental dysfunction, his tenderly frank admissions of human longing and frailty, lyrical description, and most of all, his profound realization that “I am not my story.” That realization enabled him to gradually transcend his dark and sordid past to become that metaphorical beamish boy. This simple, unheralded wisdom will remain with me long after details of the story have faded.
In many ways Ian Mathie’s experiences in his memoir Bride Price reminds me of Indiana Jones, although there is no treasure involved. When Mathie opted to live in a remote jungle village in Zaire during the 1970s, he did so for the convenience of living on site as he taught the villagers to build filtered wells to ensure a supply of safe drinking water. His facility for picking up the language, thinking on the fly, and quickly adopting native customs served him well. They may also have led to the horrifying adventure he became involved in.
After a complex string of events, Mathie becomes the foster father for Abélé, a homeless girl who has returned to the village under conditions making it impossible for other families to take her in. She flowers under his guidance, and all seems well until the day Kuloni Nkese, an evil Party official from a nearby region arrives and demanding that Mathie set a bride price for Abélé, thinking himself crafty by invoking tribal tradition for the process. Mathie recognizes the danger and immediately seeks counsel from wise community leaders, but it’s up to him to make a final decision that will deter Nkese and protect Abélé.
He knows that setting a price in money isn’t the answer. Nkese will steal the money, and Mathie will lose respect for accepting it. He must and does set a bride price this dangerous fiend will not agree to pay, and I don’t think you’ll be surprised to learn that Abélé is kept safe from harm. The story does not end with the resolution of the bride price challenge. Several more factors come to light before the situation is fully resolved.
This inherently gripping story is made more so through Mathie’s masterful writing. He begins the story with the arrival of Nkese and tension escalates rapidly. He maintains suspense by gradually interspersing details of incidents leading up to this situation. His remarkable skill for conveying the essence of characters further enhances the tale.
In my opinion, this book should be required reading in all high schools. Mathie does a remarkable job of portraying the complexity of the self-sufficient and seemingly simple lifestyle of these “primitive” people and demonstrating their piercing insight into human nature and rich relationships. His account of the shaman’s powers borders on the fantastic, but by confessing his own bewilderment, he keeps it believable. As I traveled into the heart of the tribe along with him, I came to share his love for these people and feel a strong kinship with them. My heart feels larger as a result. Stories such as he shares are powerful stepping stones toward more global understanding and respect among all people, and I look forward to reading more of his work.
As much as I’d come to admire and respect the people he writes of, I was grief stricken while reading his epilogue describing the devastation that has swept Zaire since that time. Mathie may have won the battle for Abélé, but his people lost their war.