Review - A Red Woman Was Crying by Don Mitchell

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A Red Woman Was Crying, Stories from Nagovisi, by Don Mitchell (Saddle Road Press, 2013), is a rich collection of linked stories told by fictional members of the Nagovisi tribe on the island on West-Central Bougainville Island in the Southwestern Pacific.

Mitchell, an anthropologist, spent several years living among the Nagovisi in the early 1970s, and returned briefly in 2001. The island and its people have been subjected to war and upheaval since the 1970s, when corporations moved in to mine the island's abundant copper mines. Today it is politically part of Papua New Guinea.

These stories brim with folklore and tribal wisdom, humor, pathos, and an enlightened understanding of a cultural divide as seen through the native characters who tell the stories.

Several characters recur throughout the stories, particularly Mesiamo and Lalaga, as does an American anthropologist named Elliott Lyman. The natives nickname the anthropologist Kakata, after a white bird of the jungle.

Mitchell’s decision to tell these stories from individual natives' points of view is inspired. It allows the anthropologist to be seen through their eyes, which makes for a fascinating look at how an outsider would be viewed. Mitchell’s keen powers of observation not only tell us about them, but how he came to see himself during the years he lived with them.

We learn about their lifestyles and dress, how men and women interact with each other, pick up bits of their language, and are fascinated by the customs of a people who - at least until more recently - were unaffected by the modern world.

Mitchell has written extensively about his research, academic works that would be of interest to other scientists, but this collection is a beautiful and accessible chronicle of the ways of life and attitudes of a tribal people that few of us have heard of, let alone may have encountered. It is eminently entertaining, with humor and wit, to boot. I highly recommend it.