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The Last Heathen
Encounters with Ghosts and Ancestors in Melanesia

by Charles Montgomery
Douglas and McIntyre
314 pages, $24.95

reviewed by Joe Wiebe
posted May 11, 2005

When Charles Montgomery won the $25,000 Charles Taylor Prize for Non-Fiction in February, it was seen as a bit surprising considering the prestigious field of established writers he beat out and the fact that The Last Heathen is the Vancouver writer’s first book. But anyone who reads this very fine book will agree it is well-deserving of the praise and awards being heaped upon it.

In The Last Heathen, Montgomery follows the footsteps of his great-grandfather, Henry Montgomery, the Bishop of Tasmania who, in 1892, set sail on the mission schooner Southern Cross “to bring the word of God to the heathens of the Melanesian archipelago, a chain of hundreds of islands shrouded in violence, fear and—equally shocking to the Victorian missionaries—nakedness, promiscuity, and sloth.” The result is a powerful and provocative examination of spirituality and culture in conflict with the modern world.

Christianity eventually took root throughout Melanesia in spite of the fact that the islands’ cultures embraced headhunting, ancestor worship, and magic. Toss in a little cannibalism and blood sacrifice (though both activities may have been exaggerated by early missionaries as they sought donations from back home), and mix in the islands’ natural explosiveness—many are active volcanoes—and the result is a heady and controversial brew of pagan culture and natural wonder. The author, a skeptical atheist at odds with his great-grandfather’s single-minded Victorian primitivism, hoped to find “the primal howl, the flash of magic, the story that would change everything.”

Melanesia is made up of three separate island groups—Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and the Santa Cruz Islands—along with the single large island, New Caledonia. It remains one of the remotest places on Earth, as evidenced by how often Charles Montgomery ended up waiting for days for a ship to be repaired or fuel to be delivered or simply for the Captain to get around to weighing anchor. And these were not luxury liners by any stretch, as shown in the following:

“The ship twisted and rolled unnaturally, and the night was filled with the hollow boom of waves striking the bow, the groan and flex of the hull and a screeching that sounded like 20-foot containers sliding across the steel floor of the hold. We did not use our cushioned chairs. We clung to the floor like lovers and vomited into plastic bags, purses and open palms.” And that, supposedly, was the “finest ship in the archipelago.”

The Last Heathen goes well beyond travelogue, although travellers interested in the South Pacific would do well to read it for its first-hand insights. Montgomery was clearly haunted by his great-grandfather’s ghost—and the parallel with the way Melanesian Islanders worship their own ancestors is not unintentional.

The young Canadian writer went to this remote place expecting to find Christianity in direct conflict with ancient local beliefs, but everywhere he went he encountered a comfortable hybrid of the two instead. It seems all the locals he encountered, from dirt-poor and illiterate to educated and well-off, called themselves Christians, but at the same time, they believed that a certain rock could affect the weather or a curse could cause illness or death. Even some local Christian clergy would back up their prayers with traditional payments of pigs or shell money to tribal chiefs and sorcerers, or animal sacrifices to ancestors.

Aside from the religious/cultural exploration, The Last Heathen also offers up a snapshot of a South Seas paradise in danger of being destroyed by the industrial world. On one island, Montgomery encountered a Malaysian logging operation: “It wasn’t the missing trees that struck me the most. It was the ground. The red earth had been unbound, freed from its protective weave of roots and bush. It was crumbling, sliding all around us; now seeping away like hot lava, now spilling over the roads; filling the gullies like wet cement, overflowing from creek beds, leaving the mountain thin and wasted like the victim of a sorcerer’s life-sucking curse. This was a landscape drained of its life.”

Parts of this book are truly mind-bending. A chapter describing the author’s experiences during a malaria-induced delirium with nothing to read but the King James Bible is a spectacular piece of writing. As well, the book’s climactic scenes, when Montgomery experienced events that he could not explain in a rational manner, are simply transcendent. I could go on, listing many more examples of exceptional writing, but instead, I will make this recommendation: read The Last Heathen; you won’t be disappointed.

Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer currently working on his first novel.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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