Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Unfolding Destinies by Olive Liefeld

My reading seems to be taking on a very miscellaneous character of late. Or perhaps it's always been that way. Anyway, I bought this one at church because the author spoke there one Sunday. Several books have been written on the martyrdom of five Christian missionaries in the jungles of Ecuador in 1956, the most recognizable probably being The End of the Spear, which gave its name to a 2006 movie.

At 23, Olive Liefeld hadn't been married to missionary Pete Fleming for long when he died. He'd delayed asking her to marry him while he debated the problem of whether he should marry when he was likely to be killed. All five men accepted the possibility of death as they sought out the Aucas (the name means "naked savage"), a lost tribe living a stone-age existence in a society founded on killing. As an example, a normal method of obtaining a wife was to kill her family and drag her off. Not surprisingly, tribal numbers were on a downward slope.

Unfolding Destinies is told from Olive's viewpoint, and spends a lot of time on the years she and Pete spent together--and apart--as students gradually building a relationship. It's rather heavy on the Christianese, and I for one felt like a spiritual pygmy in contrast to their earnestness. But of such stuff are missionaries made. Presumably you don't head off for the jungles without some serious spiritual backbone. Knowing (as the reader does, otherwise I doubt s/he'd have picked up the book) that the story ends in widowhood kept me reading, ghoul that I am.

The book gives a very brief account of what happened after the massacre, but it's worth telling and you can find it in some of the related books if you want. Two of the widows stayed on, and were eventually approached by some Auca women interested in knowing about the "People-Maker" the men had talked about. Apparently, the Aucas had been impressed by the way the missionaries had offered no violence to their attackers as their society simply didn't work that way. Over time many of the Aucas converted to Christianity, and the men who did the actual killing all became church leaders or pastors. Today the tribe is a peaceful people known as the Huaorani, and several of them work as evangelists among the other tribes of the region.

Whatever your views on religion and missionaries, I hope you pick up, as I did, on the respect that these Americans had for the cultures they were "invading" and their willingness to do everything they could to understand them. I would have liked to have read more about the other "invaders" - the Western commercial interests that were encroaching on the tribal territories with far less respect. In these days of large-scale disaster aid, it's a topic to be explored.

1 comment:

Jane Steen said...

Incidentally, the Amazon list price is ridiculously high. Olive was selling copies for $10, and I'm happy to send you mine for free if you really want to read it.