Arundhati Roy characterizes India’s governance in her new novel, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”. She pictures India as culturally diverse; however, it is defined by separateness and injustice more than freedom and equality-of-opportunity.
India’s population; not its territorial size, makes it the largest democratic republic in the world. Roy exposes India’s democracy and its flaws. The flaws she identifies are reminders of America’s democratic failings.
Without having traveled to India (a trip is planned in February 2018), much of the author’s writing resonates with what is happening in America. Roy observes Indian society as she lives it. This is only her second novel in the last twenty years. With a host of fascinating characters, Roy offers an insightful vision of modern India. Her writing beautifully describes Indian society while beating democracy with an ugly-stick.
One can personally believe in the value of democracy in the world and still appreciate what Roy says about failures of democracy in India. A joke that Roy tells capsulizes a major flaw in democracy. Because of difference among followers of the Muslim religion, Roy illustrates the absurdity of volitional separateness. A comparable joke in American history might be as follows:
Picture a Union soldier at the beginning of the Civil War with the intention of jumping off Fort Sumter’s wall to his death. A Rebel soldier sticks his head out to talk the Union soldier off the ledge.
Rebel soldier: “Where are you from?”
Union soldier: “South Carolina.”
Rebel soldier: “Me too.”
Union soldier: “I’m a God-fearing Baptist.”
Rebel soldier: “Me too.”
Union soldier: “I believe in State’s Rights.”
Rebel soldier: “Me too.”
Union soldier: “I’m a white American and believe in the superiority of the white race.”
Rebel soldier: “Me too.”
Union soldier: “I believe Negroes are unequal to whites.”
Rebel soldier: “Me too.”
Union soldier: “I believe a woman’s place is in the home.”
Rebel soldier: “Me too.”
Union soldier: “I believe in majority rule for States’ Rights.”
Rebel soldier: “Me too.”
Union soldier: “I believe in a federalist government that makes States stronger and guarantees life, and liberty for all.”
The Rebel soldier leans over and pushes the Union soldier off the ledge.
In contrast, Roy’s story is about two Indian Muslims that are the same on most levels. However, as each layer of similarity is revealed, a singular difference compels hostility, imprisonment, injury, or murder. That theme carries through in every character in “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”. The irony of Roy’s title resonates in each chapter of the book.
In the beginning of Roy’s story, a family has their first boy child. The child is born with both male and female parts. The mother conceals the child’s circumstance from the father until the boy begins to exhibit a desire to be a girl. The girl is rejected by her father. She seeks refuge in a house where other hermaphrodites live. She grows to adulthood but becomes isolated from Indian society. She is an extraordinary woman who establishes an outcasts’ haven in a cemetery that attracts equally shunned Indians. (One is reminded of the many minorities in America who are driven to similar non-judgmental enclaves.)
Roy’s novel reflects on relations between India, Pakistan, and China in Kashmir. She notes Muslim influence throughout India that sharply differentiates the majority Hindu population in India from the Muslim majority in Kashmir. The complexity of Kashmiri society pits Muslim against Muslim, Hindu against Muslim, Asian against Muslim, Pakistani and Chinese against Indian. The irony is that this is democracy.
The ideal of democracy is to meld different cultures into one multi-cultural and accepting society with a belief in a common good. However, human nature gets in the way. The drive for money, power, and prestige is unleashed by democracy in ways that separate cultures from humanity. The rich become richer at the expense of the poor. Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Hubris qualifies one child for Harvard; another for military service, community college, or poverty row.
Roy’s novel is about life and death. No one ever dies in her story; i.e. they just move on. Death is belief of a beloved that no one is missed because they are always with you.
Roy’s story is not written as a political manifesto. It is about human nature; not about governments or their politics. Roy’s book seems a plea for people to recognize diversity in humanity; i.e. to accept rather than reject, and not to isolate, injure, and/or murder the “other”.
Roy is an idealist who sees the world as it is. The reality is we live in a world as it is; not as it ought to be.
Roy infers the world should let Pakistanis, Afghans, Kashmiris, Iraqis, Syrians, Indians; and other nation-builders choose their own way of life. Only in the context of human nature, does one size fit all. To date, no government seems capable of achieving acceptance of diversity, but some are better than others.
This review fails to show how beautifully this story is written. One can enjoy Roy’s book just for the images she creates with words.
Twenty days in Africa does not make you an expert. But, as noted by our insightful Zimbabwe-born team leader, every visit to Africa changes both visitor and native. Manue Joao paints a picture of three nation-states that vivify the great beauty and wealth of Africa. In twenty days, the nations of Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana were traveled by our group of 15 Americans; organized, directed, and helped by local guides and a host of excellent camp managers.
Having traveled with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) before, we expected a cultural adventure. OAT did not disappoint. Along with spectacular scenic opportunities, events were scheduled to give travelers a more intimate and personal understanding of the host countries visited.
OAT’s team leader, Manue offers a history lesson on Africa as we travel on planes, boats, buses, and Land Rovers, through the African Savannah.
Today, the three major industries in Africa are mining, agriculture, and tourism. Each of these industries have troubles. Mining for coal is a big industry in crises with falling prices, and environmental concern. African laborers are offered decent salaries but Manue notes that one coal mine had not paid their laborers for over four years. He goes on to explain—the laborers keep working because there is no alternative employment. The mine workers are ecstatic when, earlier this year, the mine owners offer 7% of their back wages to continue working.
In visiting a small village, we find that agriculture is constantly faced with the terrors of nature; i.e. poor rainfall, soil depletion, and animal destruction.
Tourism is troubled by ivory poaching, Rhino killing for horn harvesting profits, and elephant overpopulation in restricted habitat reserves.
Putting aside these troubles in the big three industries, there seems a leadership deficit in a country with so much untapped potential.
Many Africans seem trapped in poverty when the wealth of the country is laid waste by an interstate transportation system that strangles economic growth. Trucks are lined up for hours, days, weeks, and sometimes months for transport across borders. Vast tracks of land are only accessible by dirt roads. Water, sewer, and infrastructure investment seems un-systematically utilized. Government leaders are often corrupted by the power they wield over government employment, contracts, policies, and finances.
The history of Africa seems to set a table for an economic feast that is consumed by everyone except the vast majority of Africans.
Because of the European scramble for wealth and power (between the 15th and early 20th century), the continent of Africa was colonized by foreign rulers. Great Britain, Portugal, France, and Belgium carved Africa into nation-states in the Berlin Conference of 1884-85. Without regard to native societies a multi-state continent was formed based on the greed and hubris of occupying foreign governments. The irony of Africa’s artificial nation-state creations was that these arbitrary borders become a source of conflict in the African’s drive for independence.
The economic difficulties of Africa remind one of the early days of America. Every state of the original 13 colonies was a kingdom unto itself until the First Continental Congress in 1774. Though the 13 colonies are largely populated by white English, Germans, and French, with a growing population of Black slaves, each colony became a melting pot for white immigrants arriving from different nations of the world. In America, native American Indians were slaughtered or displaced by the advance of “civilization” with the increasing influx of foreign, largely white, immigrants.
To a degree, something similar has occurred in Africa. In the early colonization of Africa, each nation-state was composed of native tribes who established societies controlled by early Europeans. (The most obvious parallel to America’s slaughter and displacement of native Americans, is the slave trade that killed or displaced tens of millions of native Africans.) As white European controllers are thrown out of Africa, the mixture of remaining native African cultures boiled over like an over-heated melting pot.
Either because of religion, ethnicity, or differing societal norms, one factional group stepped on another’s freedom. Conflict rose; in some cases, with violent and deadly results. In America, “boiling over” is evident in the civil rights movement, anti-war rallies, women’s rights marches, and elections of incompetent Presidents. In Africa, it is evident in the taking of private property without compensation, inter-state commerce inefficiency, equal rights movements for women, and rule by notorious leaders like Idi Amin, and Joseph Kony.
Africa is incredibly beautiful.
In sunrises and sunsets; in exposure to the largest and most beautiful animals in the world;
in spectacular views of Victoria Falls, and with many Africans’ heart-felt acceptance of tourists. A traveler sees and feels the radiance of nature and the kindness of all human beings. But, the economic hardship of the general population in the face of such great potential wealth is disheartening.
The heart of the failure of African nation-states is said to lie at the feet of poor leadership and corruption. Though there is undoubted truth in that observation, it seems an excuse for failure. Every scheduled presentation by indigenous Africans notes how important education is to their and their family’s success. It may be that the people we met are an exception but every culture has its exceptions. It is these exceptions that modernize the world.
Sacrifice for education and family values are obvious characteristics of the people we met. Stories were told of the sacrifice that a Principal makes to teach children English; a story of a prostitute who sells herself with the intent of saving enough to finish school and start her own business; a story of an un-wed mother who is first in her class in high school and goes on to college—all are native Africans emphasizing the importance of family and education.
One is drawn to the conclusion that corruption and poor leadership are a stage of early development that will be ameliorated (not eliminated) over time. There is no quick solution but a first step would be to re-value the indigenous culture of each part of Africa. Simply changing borders is not the answer. But, like early America, sections of Africa should consider their own Continental Congresses to provide government services that a single state is unable to provide; i.e. services like interstate commerce, military preparedness, and a common currency. Every power not given to this centralized government would remain in the hands of respective nation-states. This would allow each nation to retain its identity within a union of states of similar tribes and cultures that would wield power that is not reserved by independent nation-states.
Today, the economic strength of Africa is being strangled by border crossing regulations that delay interstate commerce. Undoubtedly, corruption is exacerbated by bribes to get consumer goods across borders.
Respective state leaders are reluctant to give up control of borders because they get a piece of the interstate border crossing fees. The greed of leaders can be co-opted by making them understand they will make more money with the opening of their borders by using some of the nation’s wealth to create paved roads into growth corridors of their states.
When foreign companies see they can get to their mine, or have water for agricultural development, they will invest. Government leaders can negotiate deals with foreign businesses that demand training of native populations in the management work of new businesses. When more Africans are employed, a source for government taxation is created which can add to the wealth of a nation-state or the corruption of a leader. Each President of a respective nation-state remains in control of his country in a federalist system.
The emphasis on education must be reinforced with adequate funding from respective nation-states. In time, that education will remove overtly corrupt leaders. It will not eliminate corruption but it will improve the condition of the local population.
There is a cost inherent in this push for modernization. Manue tells of a family structure that exists in the three countries visited. Close family relationship will be diminished by modernization.
Every village has a Chief who has a Head man who supervises the village. These positions are inherited; not earned by performance. This familial arrangement will be compromised by modernization because performance will become a more important criterion for Chief or Head man designations. Money and power, rather than family relationship, will become prevalent as nation-states modernize.
Love for Africa is clearly evident in the people we met. One suspects our visit is a sanitized view of the real life of most Africans. However, our view is through the eyes of a rich, modern nation. A young African boy or girl born into a family of loving parents knows what he/she knows and cares little about what a government does or a foreigner thinks. Family is everything to a child.
Twenty days in Africa is a trip of a life time; especially with a guide like Manue Joao.
Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are
Written by: The Great Courses
Narration by: Professor David Livermore
As an American traveling to other countries, there is a nervousness about being classified as an “ugly American”. Buying and listening to the Great Course’s lectures titled “Customs of the World” is a reflection of that nervousness.
Americans are generally ignorant of other cultures; partly because of a failure to learn much about American history. Add ignorance of world geography and other languages to American education and the “ugly…” appellation bares truth. This lecture series only scratches the surface of most American traveler’s cultural ignorance. Worse, it fails to make listeners any less nervous about being bad representatives of America.
American cultural ignorance begins in kindergarten and is reinforced by an education system that ignores foreign languages until it is too late for young brains to proficiently adapt to more than one language. Nearly all post-industrial nations require a passable understanding of English before graduating from high school, but not America. To make foreign cultural ignorance even worse, America’s understanding of other national cultures is filtered by English-only’ bias.
Livermore begins his lectures with a statement that “…culture matters…”. He regales American listeners with platitudes about cultural intelligence. He begins by presuming most Americans are ignorant of other citizen’s cultures which is probably true. But, Livermore suggests that ignorance can largely be overcome by listening and not proactively engaging conversation with non-Americans. How is that unique? That suggestion is as true for an American meeting any stranger; regardless of their culture.
Next, Livermore suggests the importance of understanding the predominate religion of other nations. Certainly that is relevant but it is equally relevant in one’s approach to some Americans in our own country. Finally, there is Livermore’s caution of stereotyping people based on what is said to be common in particular cultures. Again, that is a fault that exists in America among people in our own culture; e.g. black American’s perceptions of white American’s, American Latinos perceptions of black or white Americans, and vice versa.
Livermore proceeds by offering stereotypical characteristics of other countries’ citizens with examples of Nordic, Germanic, Eastern European, Latin European, Latin American, Confucian Asian, South Asian, Sub-Saharan African, and Arab cultures. Livermore compounds one’s fear of being classified as an “ugly American” with platitudes like “People from many cultures are uncomfortable talking about themselves with a stranger…” How is that a revelation? The same discomfort exists in most cultures.
Livermore’s admonition to research other countries histories is important when traveling. Having some understanding of a country’s history helps one communicate with citizens of a different country. Research tempers one’s conversation and decreases the possibility of embarrassing oneself or the person being asked questions. Livermore notes some fundamental differences between cultures like that which is collectivist (socialist or communist), another that is individualistic (democratic or egalitarian), or one that is totalitarian. Livermore is quite correct in suggesting cultures are different and can lead to gross misunderstandings but common sense is as likely to ameliorate an “ugly American” persona as these audio book’ lectures.
Livermore’s suggestion that Americans need to raise their cultural IQ-s is certainly relevant but his lectures fail to go beyond common sense platitudes. American cultural IQ-s will remain low as long as research commitments and language arts are relegated to high school and college classes. At best, Livermore raises the issue of American cultural ignorance. He does little to reduce it. The potential for being an “ugly American” is extant both inside and outside the United States.
Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, and Montenegro: Nations at a Crossroad
Written by: Chet Yarbrough
Flying into Dubrovnik, staying at a luxurious hotel, walking the ramparts of a walled city, one surmises–“this is paradise”. And it is–for a tourist, but history tells a different story.
Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina were, for nearly 40 years, parts of one nation-state. From 1945 to 1980, these countries; along with Serbia, and Macedonia were one nation called Yugoslavia. The leader of this former nation was Josip Broz Tito (see below), a Croatian born socialist (some say communist) who ruled with an iron fist and demanded independence from all warring nations during WWII. Tito led a partisan army to battle German insurgents, resist Russian influence, and deny western co-optation of Yugoslavia, a crossroad-to-Europe along the Adriatic Sea.
Walking through the gates of Dubrovnik’s fortified old town, one realizes Croatia has been a desired prize to many nations wishing for access to the Mediterranean. Formerly known as Ragusa (an ancient city-state), Dubrovnik struggles to be a prosperous city in an independent nation. However, history shows this Balkan paradise was frequently dominated by other nations. First there was the Roman Empire, then Hungary, then Venice, then the Hapsburg Monarchy, the Ottoman Empire, and finally Yugoslavia under the dictatorship of Josip Tito.
Tito creates Yugoslavia out of the tragedy of WWII. As a hero of the resistance, Tito consolidates several Balkan countries under the rule of a Serbian Army. Toward the end of Tito’s life, his second in command is Slobodan Milošević, a Serbian Yugoslavian politician. Milošević becomes leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia in 1990. With the help of the Serbian Army, Milošević attempts to recreate a semblance of the former Yugoslavia. It is to be called Greater Serbia. That attempt manifests in the war of 1991-95.
In the process of the attempt to create a Greater Serbia, Milošević manipulates the history of ethnic differences to foment a war. Milošević is charged by the International Criminal Tribunal with war crimes; including genocide and crimes against humanity. Technically, Milošević is found not guilty of genocide but is convicted for breaching the Genocide Convention by failing to prevent genocide (of Muslims) from occurring in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Milošević, after a five year trial, dies in his prison cell.
The main street of Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina is called “sniper alley” because of snipers who shot anyone on the street; many of which were running to get water and food for their family.
What one senses in a visit to Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina is that economic collapse and/or revolution are a possibility. There seems an economic struggle in three of the four independent countries of Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia–Herzegovina. Slovenia appears to be an exception.
There is a drive for self-sufficiency, and independence for each country but Slovenia seems more economically stable. The diverse industrial development of Slovenia and its partnership in the European Union suggest self-sufficient independence is being achieved. Questions remain about the other three.
An older generation in Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia–Herzegovina pine for the strong hand of a leader like Tito that assures security and independence; even at the cost of liberty. The young seem to enjoy the liberty that is available; but they appear to live only for today. The war and its aftermath leaves a younger generation (particularly those who lived through the war as children) with a belief that the future is an illusion. What is important for the young is living in the moment. If another war begins, many young people may leave rather than fight.
Living for today is based on the largess of tourism. Some Croatians have a foreboding for the future. A secure future to some seems un-realizable because of government corruption and/or ineptitude. Little industrialization is seen in Dubrovnik. In part, this may be due to technological change but it is troubling to see that most, if not all, Dubrovnik’s prosperity is dependent on tourism.
One resident of Croatia suggests that power resides in the capital of Zagreb. Towns outside of Zagreb depend on the support of government bureaucrats that seem more inclined to benefit themselves than the interests of the nation.
Industrial and commercial investment is limited to the wealthy who walk the halls of parliament in Zagreb. It is believed by some that government leaders get inside information on the next investment in the country and use that information to benefit themselves rather than the nation. (The most powerful leader in the Croatian government is the Prime Minister who just resigned.) It is not too surprising to hear ambivalent feelings expressed about Tito. Some residents feel the treasures of Croatia are being stolen by the wealthy; abetted by corrupt politicians.
The war of 1991-95 played on ethnic differences that exist in the former Yugoslavian countries. It is undoubtedly true that religion and ethnicity separates the Balkan’s indigenous population. There are Roman Catholics, Orthodox Catholics, Muslims, and Jews who maintain their own cultures within the former Yugoslavian countries. But those ethnic differences are tools of the power-hungry; not essential causes of war. As a tourist, ethnic conclaves are evident and, in fact, appreciated because of their differences. From an outsider’s observation today, each ethnicity seems to have a “live and let live” attitude.
There seems little animosity between ethnic groups but there is a common underlying disgust with government among some citizens. Desire for money, power, and/or prestige appear to be the proximate causes for war; not religion or ethnicity. Religion and ethnicity seem to be tools used by aggressors to acquire power, money, and prestige.
Many former Yugoslavian countries are at a crossroad. There is the crossroad of freedom and totalitarianism. There is the crossroad of tourism and modernization. There is the crossroad of capitalism and socialism. There is the crossroad of representative and privileged government leaders. There is the crossroad of the European union and balkanization. Croatia is struggling to become a part of the European Union but seems hamstrung by ineffective government that seems to have lost the confidence of its people.
One presumes, without truly representative government, modernization, and commercial/industrial prosperity, the European Union will see little benefit in adding Croatia, Montenegro, or Bosnia and Herzegovina to the partnership. In contrast, Slovenia became part of the European Union in May of 1992.
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World
Written by: Andrea Wulf
Narration by: David Drummond
Humboldt is a widely recognized name in the 21st century. However, knowledge of who carries the name is not well-remembered. Andrea Wulf’s book title, “The Invention of Nature”, gives an inkling of Alexander von Humboldt’s stature as a renowned explorer who recognizes the interconnection of the world in which we live. Humboldt lived among 18th and 19th century conquerors, philosophers, artists, and political leaders. From personal relationships with Goethe, Schiller, the royals of Prussia, the king of Spain, and leaders in Russia and Bolivia, Humboldt observed and categorized nature in its glory and frailty.
Humboldt is born to wealth but eschews its potential for power and prestige to become a mining engineer. As a mining engineer, he falls in love with travel, observation of nature, the adventures of climbing mountains, and inspecting volcanoes. In his travels, he records demographic information; takes area temperatures, altitude measurements, and samples of flora and fauna throughout the world. His early expeditions and detailed records reinforce conclusions of Darwin’s voyage in the Beagle years before Darwin’s seminal work on “The Origin of Species”. After deaths of his mother and father, Humboldt’s entire inheritance is used to finance his consuming interest in the history of the cosmos. Though Humboldt dies penniless, more rivers, mountains, and national landmarks are named after him than any other explorer in history.
Humboldt’s most extensive exploration begins in Latin America in 1799. With authorization from the Spanish royal court, he explores and reports findings on lands owned by Spain. Without financial assistance, Humboldt organizes his greatest expedition. No other foreigner had been given such access to Spain’s land holdings in Latin America. This initial Spanish invitation leads to later expeditions that are financially supported by Charles IV of Spain but the first expedition is at Humboldt’s expense. That exploration, and later expeditions to Russia led Humboldt to his most enduring revelation.
With Russia’s 1829 invitation, Humboldt explores the Eastern frontier. With that expedition, and his many years in Latin America, Humboldt is prepared to draw a (then) startling conclusion. He publishes the first two volumes of “Kosmos” in 1845 and 1847. Humboldt concludes human beings live on a planet that is a part of a greater natural environment; i.e. an environment in which human existence and actions change the world’s eco-system. When forests are cut, when rivers are diverted, when dams are built, there is a cascading number of changes that occur in the world’s eco-system. Until Humboldt’s “Kosmos”, there is little to no understanding of the importance of man’s actions on the world’s eco-system.
Humboldt’s expeditions; his recorded demographic information, and eco-system insights make him famous. His detailed history of Spain’s holdings in the future lands of Texas provide vital demographic information to Thomas Jefferson on the Rio Grande frontier. Humboldt meets with Jefferson at the White House. Humboldt professes to like Jefferson and the history of Jefferson’s role in writing the Declaration of Independence, but he decries the concept of slavery in the United States. Humboldt’s opinions are based on his early observations of slavery in Latin America.
Initially, Humboldt endorses Napoleonic reform in France and the emergence of rule of law that protects the poor as well as the rich. However, Humboldt is not liked by Napoleon, according to Wulf, because Humboldt begins to criticize Napoleon’s increasing dictatorial powers. Humboldt is close friends with Schiller and Goethe, two scions of the age. Bolivar is a young friend of Humboldt before his rise to power in Bolivia and Latin America. Wulf recounts their early relationship and Humboldt’s surprise at Bolivar’s political emergence as a Latin American leader. Though the people of Latin America begin to criticize Bolivar, Humboldt continues to praise his reign.
Darwin meets with Humboldt as Humboldt is nearing the end of his life. Darwin’s written recollection is of adoration for Humboldt’s research and writing in the “Kosmos”. At the same time, Darwin notes that Humboldt is quite forceful in his conversations and of a man who speaks more than listens when discussing a chosen subject. Though Humboldt mesmerizes many, he brooks no interruption on his peregrinations.
Wulf notes that though Humboldt is considered handsome by women, he never marries. Most of his close friends are men. Wulf notes that many of his expeditions were with men of his own age or younger. Humboldt writes of a deep and personal love for many of his male friends. The inference is that Humboldt may be gay but, like Da Vinci, Wulf suggests Humboldt is consumed by a restless imagination that discounts sexuality and directs his energy and attention toward exploration and invention.
Many maps are based on Humboldt’s expeditions. His many travels offer detailed information about mountain ranges, rivers, and underwater sea currents. Humboldt’s last employer is Frederick William IV of Prussia who supports him with a pension. Humboldt remained at Frederick William’s beck and call until the king’s death. Humboldt dies of old age with a history that offers immortality through the naming of national monuments throughout the world.
From Independence, Missouri to Oregon City, Oregon, the Oregon Trail beckons the Buck brothers. Rinker Buck and his brother Nick cross the American west with three mules, and one dog in a prairie schooner and pup wagon. They cross six state borders to end their journey in Baker, Oregon. As writer and narrator of the journey, the Buck brothers replicate the hardship, tragedy, resilience and joy of western pioneers who reach Oregon in the 19th century. Along the way, Rinker explores memories of his father and differences with a brother that reveals his character.
Among many insights to early 1800’s travel, Rinker explains the difference between a Prairie schooner and a Conestoga wagon. Though often depicted in western movies, the Conestoga wagon is not the wagon that crossed the Oregon Trail. The Conestoga is too bulky, too heavy, and too rigid. It is outfitted with running gear that cannot traverse rough terrain without frequent breakdowns. The Conestoga is important in the settlement of the west but only as a grain, hay, and agricultural transport vehicle.
The Prairie schooner is lighter, with a driver seat, and running gear independent of the wagon that allow for rough trails.
In contrast, the Conestoga running gear is an integral part of the wagon. It provides rigidity and stability for heavy agricultural loads but is inflexible on rough terrain. The Conestoga has no driver’s seat but is walked beside as it transports goods. Rinker’s brother is a connoisseur of wagon history and a master fixer that makes him a perfect companion for the cross-country trip. Rinker notes that this adventure will be the first time in a hundred years for traversing the west by mule and wagon.
Contrary to movie depictions of early settler travels, Rinker explains that mules are a preferred choice for wagon power. George Washington is cited as one of the first mule experts and breeders in America. Through cross breeding between horses and donkeys, Washington perfected a breed of mule that is stronger, lighter, more sure-footed, and better at crossing long distances than any other beast of burden in America. Mules are bigger and stronger than donkeys. Mules require less water than horses.
Rinker argues that mules are smarter and are undeservedly characterized as ornery. Rinker explains that a mule’s reluctance to move is often related to perceptions of danger. As the brother’s travel progresses, a listener begins to appreciate the value of the American mule while the brothers cope with idiosyncratic behaviors that are more related to hyper-alertness than orneriness.
The Rinker brothers travel on the Trail is inspiring. It makes one appreciate the history of America’s westward expansion, the beauty of nature, and the adventure of travel by animal power. There is so much to see and a different way of seeing. Rinker intersperses tales of his relationship with his father, a former publisher of “Look” magazine, and his upbringing in a family of ten children. Rinker bares love and ambivalence toward his father and becomes more aware of how he and his travelling brother are so different and so alike. He exposes a disdain for organized religion while appreciating the friendliness and helpfulness of devoted church followers.
Rinker Buck’s writing and narration make one want to experience the hardship of traveling long distances without the power and pollution of a speeding car, train, or plane. “The Oregon Trail” encourages self-examination and a re-consideration of what is important in life.
With a plan to visit Montenegro this year, it is interesting to listen to a murder mystery in that country. Rex Stout may or may not have visited Montenegro but he obviously had some understanding of the complex history of Tito’s Yugoslavian Federation. Tito led a communist guerrilla movement called the Partisans during WWII in Yugoslavia. He resisted Hitler and became Prime Minister and then President for Life of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia after the war. Though nominally a communist, Tito defied Soviet hegemony during the Cold War and tilted toward market socialism in the 1950s and 60s. After Tito’s death in 1980, Yugoslavia disintegrated and Montenegro re-asserted itself as an independent nation.
Rex Stout’s mystery is published in the 1950s, and reflects on the complex relationship between several republics that make up the Yugoslavian Federation. In the 1950s, the Federation includes Bosnia, Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia, and Serbia. Stout touches on the fear that exists in Montenegro during that period of Tito’s rule.
Putting aside Yugoslavia’s history, Stout’s “… Black Mountain” illustrates how astute and clever a mystery writer can be. Those who are familiar with the Nero Wolfe series know that Wolfe is a private detective with a wide girth, high intelligence, and moral rectitude. His right-hand man and muscle is Archie Goodwin.
The mystery begins when Wolfe’s Montenegrin childhood friend is murdered in New York. This is a friend that goes back to Wolfe’s early life in Montenegro. Local New York police investigate the crime but are not privy to some personal information Wolfe has about the murdered friend. In the 1950s, there are Montenegrin nationalists that are fighting against Tito. They seek independence from Tito’s repressive socialist regime. Wolfe’s friend is supporting these nationalist rebels when he is murdered. Wolfe neither condones nor financially supports his friend’s participation in the rebellion but he insists on bringing the murderer, whether communist, socialist, or nationalist, to justice.
At the risk of creating an international crisis, Wolfe and Archie secretly pursue clues to the murder by illegally entering Montenegro. What makes this mystery interesting is that Stout uses the politics of the 1950s to enhance credibility and integrity in his writing. Stout shows the enmity felt by some Montenegrins toward three political realities of the 1950s; e.g. existence of the Iron Curtain, Tito’s brand of socialist communism, and neighboring communist country interference in Montenegro.
Wolfe is nearly arrested by a local police commander in a Montenegrin town. The police commander is a Tito sympathizer willing to use a covert agent to kill American supporters of the Nationalist’s rebellion. Wolfe hoodwinks the police commander into transporting the murderer of his childhood friend back to the United States.
There are many vignettes that reveal the complex political situation in Yugoslavia during the 1950s. Albania is essentially acting as a surrogate for Russia in torturing Montenegrin nationalists and socialists that resist Russian influence. The Albanians are neither liked by Tito’s public officials nor the nationalist rebels. The nationalist rebels are so victimized by Tito’s repressive laws that they trust no one except their immediate family. Torture and murder are accepted behavior by all sides of the conflict.
Stout, through the character of Nero Wolfe, shows the face of an idealized American who does whatever it takes to right a wrong, but only within defined ethical boundaries. Wolfe insists on rule-of-law for judgment of criminals. There is no Wolfe’ vigilantism. There is no torture for confession of murder. There is no communist baiting; even when McCarthyism is at its peak in America. There is only justice proscribed by rule-of-law. Wolfe has the opportunity to kill his friend’s murderer but chooses to have him returned to the United States for trial.
“The Black Mountain” is an entertaining mystery; expertly narrated by Michael Prichard. It is a story that will make some interested in more tales of the rotund American hero and his witty, deadly fellow crime fighter.