The New York Times
The Shark God: Encounters with Ghosts and Ancestors in the South Pacificby Charles Montgomery
When Charles Montgomery was ten years old, he stumbled upon the memoirs of his great-grandfather, a seafaring missionary in the South Pacific. Poring over the faint text and faded pictures, he was entranced by the world of black magic and savagery the bishop described, and couldn't help but wonder what drove the Victorian to risk his life among people who had shot,
When Charles Montgomery was ten years old, he stumbled upon the memoirs of his great-grandfather, a seafaring missionary in the South Pacific. Poring over the faint text and faded pictures, he was entranced by the world of black magic and savagery the bishop described, and couldn't help but wonder what drove the Victorian to risk his life among people who had shot, drowned, or clubbed to death so many of his predecessors.
Twenty years later and a century after that journey, Montgomery sets out for the reefs and atolls of Melanesia in search of the very spirits and myths the missionaries had sought to destroy. He retraces his ancestor's path through the far-flung islands, exploring the bond between faith and magic, the eerie persistence of the spirit world, and the heavy footprints of Empire.
What he discovers is a world of sorcery and shark worship, where the lines between Christian and pagan rituals are as blurred as the frontiers of fact, fantasy, and faith. After confrontations with a bizarre cast of cult leaders, militants, and mystics, the author, in his quest for ancient magic, is led to an island in crisis -- and to a new myth with the power to destroy or to save its people forever.
Alternately terrifying, moving, and hilarious, with overtones of Melville and Conrad, The Shark God is Montgomery's extraordinary and piercingly intelligent account of both Melanesia's transformation and his own. This defiantly original blend of history and memoir, anthropology and travel writing, marks the debut of a singular new talent.
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The Shark GodEncounters with Ghosts and Ancestors in the South Pacific
By Charles Montgomery
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Charles Montgomery
All right reserved.
A Packet of Sand
Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth!
-- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
The story should begin in Oxford.
Oxford, in the muted light of early spring, not far from the pincushion spires of the old Bodleian Library, past the long sandstone wall and the constellation of early spring narcissus, through the marble rotunda and the oak-paneled anteroom, up the creaking staircase to the attic. That's where I found the envelope that set the journey in motion.
I remember the oath -- you can't just wander into the attic of Rhodes House or any other part of the Bodleian Library without taking the oath, which includes a promise not to set fire to the books. It's understood that you will not touch the older manuscripts with your fingertips, since oil from human skin is like acid to the wrinkled flesh of old parchment. I raised my hand and swore.
But the envelope. I found it in file c/nz/mel2, a cardboard box full of tattered letters, newspaper clippings, and journal extracts. Inside it was a postcard from Egypt, stamped at Port Said: Jan. 30, 1884. There was no image on the front of the card, just the address of one Reverend Prebendary Plant, the vicar of Weston-on-Trent. The envelope also contained a sheet of cream-colored paper folded many times over and sealed with red wax. The seal was broken.
I made a little fortress of books and albums so the archivists could not see me, then I carefully unfolded the paper. Inside it was another piece of paper, folded to the dimensions of a matchbook. It had also been sealed with wax, and this seal was broken, too. I opened it and peered inside.
It contained perhaps a spoonful of sand and splinters, as though someone had taken a walk on a beach, then scraped the sole of his shoe and swept the remains into that little packet. I reached in and ran my finger through the grit. The splinters were so dry they crumbled on touch. I turned the paper over. Handwritten on the back of it: "Sand and wood from the spot where Bishop Patteson died."
A story: John Coleridge Patteson, the first bishop of Melanesia, had been welcomed ashore on the tiny atoll of Nukapu on a sunny afternoon in 1871. He was led to a palm-thatched hut and offered a grass mat, on which he lay down to rest. The bishop closed his eyes, as if to ready himself for the blow that would shatter his skull, as if he was waiting to die and be resurrected as the martyr-hero of the western South Pacific. The blow came. Everyone agrees on that one detail. Dozens of versions of the story eventually emerged, and they once captivated England as thoroughly as those of the martyrdom of Livingstone in Africa. Preachers, politicians, and pundits turned their attention to the South Pacific. Queen Victoria was petitioned to deal with the "atrocity." A warship was dispatched to bomb Nukapu and burn its village to the ground. Money, recruits, and a new mission ship sailed across the miles. Patteson's martyrdom was carved into stone and set into stained glass. Yet the circumstances surrounding the bishop's murder were -- and still are -- shrouded in mystery.
I took a pinch of the sand and rolled the grains between my thumb and forefinger. Nukapu. I imagined the reef, the island, and the murder that was a transforming moment in the history of the South Pacific, a moment that tied together the dreams of an ancient culture, the crimes of a generation of rogues, and the aspirations of hundreds of spiritual adventurers, including my own great-grandfather.
I was ten years old when the first piece of the story came to me. My father, who had spent most of his life as a sailor, had found his final port on the west coast of Canada. He and my mother bought a swath of pasture and forest on Vancouver Island. He felled the last of the great firs, planted his fields with clover, built a barn for his Herefords, and then he died.
A few weeks after the funeral, my mother discovered my father's dispatch box in a corner of the attic. She hauled the black tin trunk down to the dining-room table and began to sift through it. I remember watching her and seeing the worry on her brow. I know now that she was terrified my father was receding, drifting away on the sea of memory. She wanted to imprint my brother and me with something of our father's character -- something that would remind us that we were part of a story that did not end with his death, a story that would bind us to him, or at least to his name.
The box didn't offer much. My father ran off to sea when he was fifteen. He had served on troopships in the Atlantic and Indian oceans during World War II, dodged German submarines in the Mediterranean. He had fed dinner leftovers to sharks off the coast of Sicily. One letter, posted in Cape Town, described a showdown with a water buffalo in Mozambique. What else? He once had a girlfriend in Athens. He bought a Super 8 camera in Tokyo. He spent decades at sea, but the scraps in his box didn't begin to fill in the blanks. It was as if he had not wanted his tale to be told.
But there were other stories in the box. Diaries. Bits of paper. Newspaper clippings from the Victorian era. Photos of stone mansions in Ireland and India. Soldiers on tanks. Tea parties on vast lawns. Buggies drawn by camels. . . .
Excerpted from The Shark God by Charles Montgomery Copyright © 2006 by Charles Montgomery. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Charles Montgomery was named a 2003 Lowell Thomas Silver Award winner by the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation. Published originally in Canada as The Last Heathen, this book won the prestigious Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction in 2005. The author divides his time between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Mexico City.
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