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Ann Patchett’s STATE OF WONDER: Week Three

Like Sergei, I find much to unpack in the scene set among the copse of fertility trees. And here I want to introduce a new thread for discussion—the depiction and role of the novel’s indigenous characters. Marina’s introduction to the inner circle of Lakashi bark chewers is fascinating in so many ways, in particular the way this scene is a microcosm of the seeming ease with which non-indigenous characters can “go native,” that is, become part of the very culture they are making use of. Renato Rosaldo calls this yearning for what one has already consumed or destroyed “imperialist nostalgia,” and in Patchett’s novel, we see characters all but swimming in it, the most egregious example being their competing claims to the child Easter. By nostalgizing the Edenic world of the Lakashi, these characters conceal their own imperialism.

I want to return to the passage Sergei quoted in the previous post, describing the clearing where the fertility trees are to be found:

“There was no thick coat of undergrowth covering the ground, just a light wash of grass, there were no hairy ropes of vines strangling the trees, only the smooth, straight expanse of bark. Sunlight fell easily between the pale oval leaves and hit the ground in wide patches.”

Not only does Patchett’s dreamy description here of that world’s “Edenic heart,” contrast utterly with Marina’s fraught, nightmarish dreams, but the passage also runs counter to the deep trepidation she and the other non-indigenous characters experience as they encounter and anticipate encountering the fecund, too alive world of the Amazon. What’s most telling about this passage are its negatives: “no thick coat of undergrowth, no hairy ropes of vines strangling the trees,” suggesting that if an outsider comes equipped with sufficient patience and can find the right guide, there is yet a world to be discovered and consumed—here, literally consumed—on the other side of all that life and danger. Paralleling the nostalgia that Westerners bring to Native cultures, this world seems strangely ripe for the taking—or the chewing, as it were. It enacts and draws upon an array of fantasies about the natural world in general and the rain forest in particular, that lodged inside is our saving. In this case, the medicine to cure all is so available that one has only to lean over and take a bite.

Which brings me to Easter, the child who like Crusoe’s Friday, is named after a signifier on a calendar foreign to him. Sweet and silent—though hardly speechless–Easter functions as the site on which so many imaginings may be acted out. He is the rescued child of Dr. Swenson’s vision of a future in which malaria has been eradicated and childless women are eager to adopt rather than cure their infertility. He is Marina’s rescued child-self. He is Anders’ third son. In this he seems to be kin to so many “Native helpers” who’ve come before–not only Friday, but Squanto, Pocahontas, Sacagawea, perhaps even Tonto. Without giving away the ending, I’ll just say for now how delighted I was at the way Patchett took on the stereotype, often in ways that made me squirm, but then complicated and undermined it and ultimately denatured it in ways I’m still digesting. More on that next time.

Click here for the next post in the series: Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, Week Three