Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

The White Mary: A Novel

The White Mary: A Novel

3.8 12
by Kira Salak

See All Formats & Editions

A young woman journeys deep into the untamed jungle, wrestling with love and loss, trauma and healing, faith and redemption, in this sweeping debut from "the gutsiest woman adventurer of our day" (Book Magazine)

Marika Vecera, an accomplished war reporter, has dedicated her life to helping the world's oppressed and forgotten. When not on one of


A young woman journeys deep into the untamed jungle, wrestling with love and loss, trauma and healing, faith and redemption, in this sweeping debut from "the gutsiest woman adventurer of our day" (Book Magazine)

Marika Vecera, an accomplished war reporter, has dedicated her life to helping the world's oppressed and forgotten. When not on one of her dangerous assignments, she lives in Boston, exploring a new relationship with Seb, a psychologist who offers her glimpses of a better world.

Returning from a harrowing assignment in the Congo where she was kidnapped by rebel soldiers, Marika learns that a man she has always admired from afar, Pulitzer-winning war correspondent Robert Lewis, has committed suicide. Stunned, she abandons her magazine work to write Lewis's biography, settling down with Seb as their intimacy grows. But when Marika finds a curious letter from a missionary claiming to have seen Lewis in the remote jungle of Papua New Guinea, she has to wonder, What if Lewis isn't dead?

Marika soon leaves Seb to embark on her ultimate journey in one of the world's most exotic and unknown lands. Through her eyes we experience the harsh realities of jungle travel, embrace the mythology of native tribes, and receive the special wisdom of Tobo, a witch doctor and sage, as we follow her extraordinary quest to learn the truth about Lewis—and about herself, along the way.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

A young reporter embarks on a dangerous adventure in Salak's gripping debut novel, a blend of Heart of Darkness and Tomb Raider. Like her protagonist, Marika Vecera, award-winning journalist Salak has traveled solo-and narrowly escaped death-in the world's most remote and terrifying places, including war-torn Congo and the interior of Papua New Guinea. Marika, an ambitious journalist, travels to discover the truth about war correspondent Robert Lewis, who has observed some of the modern world's greatest atrocities. He is believed to have committed suicide, but a letter from a missionary leaves Marika thinking he may still be alive in the wilds of Papua New Guinea. She sets off on her quest, and eventually malaria, ritual murder and arduous trekking through the wilderness lead Marika to some startling discoveries and a pathway out of her own past trauma. While the book can be harrowing (the graphic descriptions of torture are sobering and hard to put out of mind), it offers Marika a redemptive optimism in the face of the worst humanity has to offer. (Aug.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

What is Marika Vecera doing in a dugout canoe on a waterway deep in the jungles of Papua New Guinea? A war correspondent who came close to death on a risky assignment in Africa, she was taking time off by writing the biography of her hero, Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Lewis, who reportedly committed suicide, when she learns that a pastor claims to have spotted him in the distant island nation. Now Marika is on a death-defying quest to find him, a quest that takes her far away from gentle psychologist Seb, with whom she seems to be falling in love. In this debut novel, Salak draws on her experience as an award-winning journalist to delineate both the dangers of her profession and a portrait of an obsessive personality. Throughout, she moves deftly among multiple storylines: Marika's seesawing relationship with Seb, horrific experiences in Africa, efforts to research Lewis, and daunting experiences in Papua New Guinea. The prose is sometimes a bit pulpy, but the story is undeniably involving as Marika (the "white mary," or white woman, as the natives call her) presses toward her goal. What she discovers is unexpectedly chilling. A good addition for all fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ4/1/08.]
—Barbara Hoffert

Product Details

Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Sold by:
Sales rank:
File size:
322 KB

Read an Excerpt

The White Mary

A Novel

By Kira Salak

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2008 Kira Salak
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-2956-1


The black waters of Elobi Creek show no sign of a current. It is another dead waterway, Marika tells herself, one that will breed only mosquitoes and crocodiles. Another waterway that somehow reflects — in the darkness of the water, in its stillness — all of her failings. These waters, this breathless heat, seem to be waiting for a response from her, a call to action. But she has no answers. And if she's to be honest with herself, she never had any. Things will unravel. They will fall apart.

If she is to be honest with herself — and the pain from self-honesty, but the duty of it, too — she must admit that this time she seems to have started something that is beyond her ability to stop. It is as if the dominoes of her life have begun to fall, and she can only watch each moment disappearing in the futile fractions of a second. She is still looking for her ghost. Nearly three months spent in Papua New Guinea, and no sign of him. Does Robert Lewis know she has given up everything to find him? More to the point, would he care? She ought to go home. Go back. Call this for what it is: a failure.

Beauty intrudes upon her. Flocks of red and green parrots. Butterflies of blue and gold dancing over the black waters. Crowned pigeons with their regal headdresses of gray plumage. She would like to know this beauty, not just see it. In the same way, walking down a city street, she might gaze at the featureless crowds and catch sight of a face that awakens something vital in her. A longing, perhaps. A burst of compassion. She looks at the thick, ripe jungle around her: squat sago palms nesting beside the riverbanks; ancient trees rising toward darkening clouds. It should not be so hard, she tells herself, to know this beauty.

Thomas, the lanky young man driving their dugout canoe, stops the outboard motor. The intense heat never seems to bother him, his green T-shirt saturated, his exposed black skin glistening from sweat. He picks up his bow and a bamboo arrow ending in four prongs, and aims at a crowned pigeon. Releasing the arrow, he watches it cascade into the rain forest, just missing the bird. As the pigeon flees for the sky, Thomas speaks sharply in a tribal language, putting down the bow and starting up the outboard motor. The jungle didn't seem to notice. The butterflies continue whirling. The parrots chatter. A white cockatoo fluffs out its feathers and relaxes them. As the sun disappears behind a large gray cloud, Marika yanks down her hat's brim, staring into the tangled greenery around her. She wants a sign. She would like to know that all the events of her life have conspired to bring her to this exact instant in time, with nothing — none of it — being a mistake.

But this world of Papua New Guinea won't tell her anything. It will just burn her white skin a deeper red. It will suck all the remaining moisture from her, stinging her, biting her, keeping her from sound sleep. The jungle rises thick on either side of the narrowing waterway, interconnecting overhead as if she were entering the bowels of a giant green serpent. Miraculously — or so it seems to her — she actually arrives somewhere at the end of each day, alive.

And closer, she hopes, to Robert Lewis.

The sun becomes shrouded by gray clouds. Their canoe passes some reeds, and the screeches of grasshoppers ring in Marika's ears. She sits with her hips wedged between the narrow sides of the vessel, her feet resting in an inch of muddy water in the bottom of the hull. Her toes show the last traces of red nail polish she applied months ago, back when she still lived with Seb. During her worst, most unattractive times, she often imagines he can see her — like when she's squatting on muddy riverbanks brushing her teeth, or smearing bloody mosquitoes from her face. What would he think of her now? Her skin sunburned and sweat soaked, her nose peeling, her T-shirt filthy and torn. Surely his worst suspicions about this trip would be confirmed.

Marika pulls her hat's brim even lower. Rain falls, the heavy, cold drops shocking her skin. But rain is always welcome over sunlight, allowing her the rare chance to cool off. She never stops sweating otherwise, not even during the night. This world is sticky and sultry without respite.

Thomas stands behind her, manning the outboard of the canoe. The prow of the boat is carved in the shape of a crocodile head, and Marika likes to imagine him riding the very creature of creation. The locals believe that the earth was once completely covered with water. Then in boredom, or perhaps arrogance, a giant crocodile dived down to the bottom of the sea and returned with mud on its back — thus the world was formed. As Creator, the crocodile is the most feared animal in these parts. It is the king of the gods in a land where locals believe that every plant and animal, every stream and stone, contains spirits requiring near-constant propitiation. Even the missionaries' religions compete with the crocodile. Once, when beginning her search for Lewis, Marika saw a carving in a spirit house of Jesus himself riding on a crocodile's back.

"Missus," Thomas says. The canoe stops moving and butts against reeds. She looks back, seeing him pointing to a narrow corridor between a cluster of mangroves. "Tobo," he says.

"How far to his village?" she asks.

"Not far."

But Thomas doesn't move. A hornbill with a giant yellow beak flies above the jungle canopy, its wings making a sound like an approaching chopper. Marika knows choppers don't come this far into the jungle, though. Virtually nothing does. The malarial swamps plague any attempts at civilization. Mostly hunters pass through, their crude lean-tos appearing beside the creek every few miles. The more deadly it is for humans, the more rich the game. Wild pigs. Giant cassowary birds. The docile, helpless cuscus, a marsupial that can be plucked from the trees. To live out here, you'd have to be half crazy. Which is why she thinks she can find Lewis in such a place.

Thomas doesn't want to continue. He complains about what she paid him. Three hundred dollars isn't enough. He wants three hundred more. They're going to see Tobo, after all, and Tobo can use sorcery to curse him. He doesn't think the white woman knows the danger they could be in. Probably, they've already passed through several areas that Tobo has bewitched. Thomas touches the cross around his neck, wondering, as he has for many years, just how powerful the Jesus spirit is. The missionaries told him that Jesus is a king, a bigman among all big men, but Thomas has long had his doubts.

"Four hundred kina, Missus," he says. "I will take you there for four hundred more."

Once they'd left the outpost on the Sepik River for the interior, floating through the empty expanses of jungle, Marika expected to be asked for more money. It has happened to her all over the world. Thomas, missionary schooled and English speaking, understands this game and plays it well. She takes out the equivalent of two hundred dollars in kina bills. She puts it in his palm and turns back around.

"Four hundred, Missus," he says.

She just studies the chipped nail polish on her toes. The sun, catching a break between clouds, momentarily lights up a patch of black water beside her. Thomas has noticed that this white woman doesn't talk very much, and he assumes it's because she's angry with him. The white people always seem to be getting angry with him, though everyone knows that trip prices change.

Thomas sighs and yanks the outboard from the water, not wanting the blades to catch on any roots. Picking up his paddle, he propels the canoe through the narrow channel between the mangroves. The route hasn't been cut back recently, mangrove branches arcing before them. Marika constantly ducks to avoid being struck, while Thomas chops at the bushes with his machete, leaves and small branches raining upon her.

Hours pass in this way. To Marika, the mangroves seem neverending. Thomas stops periodically to bail water from the canoe and to recaulk cracks in the hull with balls of river clay. Marika can see nothing but the maze of bushes around her and the dark, anvil-like clouds in the north, heralding rain. As the channel widens into a small lagoon, she sits up, squinting into the half-light of approaching dusk. She sees a tiny village opposite them. A few huts sit on the edge of the lagoon, a cooking fire blazing beneath one of them. Several upright tree trunks, painted red and cut to different heights, line the shore like totem poles. Each is carved in the shape of a creature — not human, but not quite animal — and decorated with large tufts of cassowary feathers.

"Tobo lives there," Thomas says, pointing at the huts. "That is Anasi village."

"What are those posts for?" she asks.

"Posts, Missus?"

"Those carvings?"

Thomas squints at them. "It's witchcraft," he says, dismissing them with a wave of his hand. "Tobo is not a Christian."

"But what are they for?" she asks again.

Thomas laughs at her ignorance. "They are protection from demons, Missus," he says.

Marika knows the Anasi witch doctor is famous for his "powers." According to several missionaries she talked to, he's in great demand in the villages of the Sepik River region. His "powers" don't interest her, though; rather, Tobo travels widely and is said to have visited many of the villages in the interior. If anyone would know about Robert Lewis, Tobo might, so she's spent the past two weeks trying to reach him. Two weeks of traveling waterways so low from drought that fallen trees and limbs littered the route for miles. She and Thomas have used up entire afternoons chopping through the branches or pulling the heavy dugout canoe over them. It was day after day of such tedious travel in the undying heat, cutting, portaging, paddling through swamps, only to return each night to her tent reeking heavily of mildew and sweat.

Being in Papua New Guinea for nearly three months has begun to take its toll on Marika. It's been three months of enduring extreme humidity and heat. Of being protein-deprived, eating the tasteless, starchy food that villagers survive on. During that time, she's been spreading word up and down the Sepik River that she wants news of a white man named Robert Lewis. But news — if there is any — comes slowly in PNG and can take months to arrive. There are no phones, nothing but word-of-mouth to travel the vast distances. Little information has come but for a few dubious reports of white men seen in different villages, all of whom turned out to be missionaries. Lewis, though, is far from being a missionary. And the person who wrote about Lewis being alive in PNG — an elderly American pastor named John Wade who'd lived on the Fly River — died nearly half a year ago. No one else in the missionary outposts knows anything further, and Marika contacted every one of those outposts.

Marika puts on her long-sleeved shirt and covers all exposed skin with repellent, as the mosquitoes will soon be out in droves. They aren't lethargic in PNG. They dive for her skin like kamikazes, biting the instant after landing. She hates nothing as much as the mosquitoes, which force her to wear pants and a long-sleeved shirt at dusk, though such covering makes the heat virtually unbearable. She has noticed that PNG requires constant surrender and submission, the entire country designed to humble — even humiliate — her.

She hears the dull beatings of a wooden garamut drum. Some men and old women leave their huts to stand onshore, peering at her and Thomas in the rising darkness. The women wear only woven bark skirts. Some of the men wear ratty shorts and have smears of ochre paint on their cheeks. Each holds a bow and backward-barbed arrows — the sort used for human warfare. The missionaries like to insist that the tribes have all been tamed by Christianity, that cannibalism has ended, but Marika doesn't believe it. In a small, out-of-the-way village, she's glimpsed smoky skulls lying beside spirit effigies.

Marika doesn't expect the men to shoot their arrows. Her arrival, a blond- haired white woman in a dugout canoe, is surely more bizarre than threatening. The old women — clutching staffs, their breasts hanging flat against their chests — are an astounding sight; people in these parts almost never live past forty. Younger women crouch behind a nearby hut, watching her arrival with terrified eyes. Thomas stops paddling just before shore, and he speaks sharply to the Anasi men in Pidgin. She's learned enough of the language by now to understand that he's telling them that a wait meri, literally a "white mary," a white woman, is here to see Tobo. The men lower their bows. A boy runs into a nearby hut, and after a few minutes a new man emerges.

Marika sees his eyes first, which remain wholly fixed on her. She knows from his fierce presence that he must be Tobo, the famous witch doctor, long before Thomas confirms it. The man is covered in red ochre, his face painted to look like a skull, his white eyes glowing in the dusk light. Around his neck rests a half moon kina shell, the mother-of-pearl gleaming in the departing light. Large hoop earrings made from cassowary quills hang from his distended earlobes and graze the tops of his shoulders, a single bird claw jutting from a hole in each nostril. He wears a breechclout of long, rubbery tanket leaves, which swishes as he walks on flat, heavily calloused feet. Tobo strides to shore, an arresting certitude in each step, and stands there silently, arms crossed. He looks intently at Marika, as if expecting her.

Thomas refuses to paddle closer.

"Thomas," Marika says impatiently, "take me to shore."

"Tobo has great powers," he warns.

"You told me that already, back in Ambunti."

"Yes, I know. But ..." He fingers the cross around his neck, noticing that Tobo is now grinning and mimicking him. "Eh! Look at him!"

"Just take me to shore," Marika says. "Let's go."

Thomas sighs and makes a quick sweep with the paddle. The canoe shoots forward, the carved crocodile head ramming against the muddy bank. Marika rises and tries to balance herself in the unwieldy craft. She carefully tosses her backpack onto the ground. Getting a foot anchored, she leaps to shore, Thomas following reluctantly. Tobo eyes her all the while. His stare reminds her of the look a priest gave her once, when she was visiting a cathedral in Peru. There is the same intense, dignified aloofness. The quiet piety. The red ochre skull painted on his face disconcerts her, but only mildly. She has met many "sorcerers" like him, mostly in West Africa, in places like Benin and Mali, and she doesn't really believe in what they do. Her interest in animism has been mostly sentimental. She finds it colorful, titillating.

Compared to someone like Tobo, Marika imagines herself as hopelessly ordinary. No distinguishing features but for her job, which brings — or, at any rate, brought — her speaking gigs of all sorts around the United States, usually at journalism schools. After her series of magazine cover stories came out on the civil war in Liberia, winning several prestigious awards, she acquired a surprising amount of media attention and, more to her discomfort, fame. Hers was often the only name that came to mind when people thought of female war reporters. She'd been everywhere the boys had been, and then some. The usual dangerous places — the Somalias and Bosnias — but some uniquely awful places, too. Sierra Leone. Angola. Chechnya.

Women, Marika has come to understand, still aren't supposed to wander alone in places like Liberia or Papua New Guinea — though doing so feels no more extraordinary to her than what an auto mechanic or an accountant does. It's what she does because she's competent at it. She has an unusually high threshold for fear. She's willing and able to travel to uncomfortable, inhospitable places to get her stories. In her view, it's the only thing she's ever been good at: facing the unpleasant.


Excerpted from The White Mary by Kira Salak. Copyright © 2008 Kira Salak. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Kira Salak has won the PEN award for journalism and appeared five times in Best American Travel Writing. She is a contributing editor for National Geographic Adventure magazine and was the first woman to traverse Papua New Guinea; her nonfiction account of that trip, Four Corners, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2001. Her fiction has appeared in Best New American Voices and other publications.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

The White Mary 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Kasia_S More than 1 year ago
The main reason why I chose to read this book was the fact that I have just finished watching the last season of Lost which has rapidly turned into one of my favorite shows of all time and I needed a quick jungle fix to prolong the euphoria. Rather than just being a good read, "The White Mary" surpassed my expectations and was one of the best books I have ever read, I feel so lucky that I decided to read this!

Intense, addictive and at some passages almost unreadable but in a good way, the world of young journalist who decides to find her inspirational favorite writer Robert Lewis is turned upside down as she dives into a life changing adventure. Marika Vecera has had enough of dangerous journalistic work overseas in war ridden countries where murder and thievery rule daily life, when her relationship suffers at her own decisions she decides to follow hear heart and seek out the one man who can give her answers. The problem is that he has been proclaimed dead due to a suicide possible by drowning in Malaysia, but rumors that reach Marika about his sighting in the most remote jungles of Papua New Guinea spark her interest at finding him, no matter how dangerous the journey. When she starts looking for him her outlook on life is weak, she is not afraid of death but the more her life is threatened with various occurrences she learns new things about herself that open the reader's eyes to deep corners of our own souls. The journey is fascinating but the future often bleak and the reader never knows when it will all suddenly end. I can't remember the last time I was so engrossed in such a rich, beautiful novel.

Half way through reading this I looked up the author, Kira Salak and found her website. Her own journeys to almost all the continents are documented with stunning photos; I spend a whole afternoon browsing her site, looking at the scrapbook of her life, so enormous and exciting that her life looks like an adventure movie in comparison to someone like myself. Through her eyes and words I too feel that the world is large and remote but accessible for those who really want to see each nook and cranny. I can't wait to read more of her work; this is one strong and brilliant woman.

- Kasia S.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was fortunate to get a pre-publication review copy of this novel. The characters, scenes, events and descriptions of this book are so real that I found myself almost living Marika¿s life and experiencing her trials, tribulations, and successes in her amazing journey from traumatic events to a spiritual awakening. Never once was my reading suddenly interrupted by any event that seemed unreal and made me aware that I was reading a work of fiction. The characters are interesting, all people who we come to care about and understand at a very a deep level. The book brought me to places I have never seen, never imagined, and made them as real to me as my own living room. The book¿s pages flow easily and you are constantly being pulled forward, wanting to know what will happen next. Once I started reading the book I ignored other plans and just had to keep reading until the end. Tobo, though a secondary character, I think is one of my favorites, his insights into life are really amazing. The physical and spiritual journeys in this book are wonderful, sometimes extremely powerful, and I am so glad that I was able to join Marika on her journeys.
harstan More than 1 year ago
Globetrotting reporter Marika Vecera adored renowned war correspondent Robert Lewis, who has reported on some of the most heinous genocides humanity has done. Thus she has problems accepting the repot that her hero committed suicide as that is so out of character for a man who would courageously go to the next hot spot to expose atrocities.------------ When Marika reads a letter from a missionary she holds out hope that Robert is alive somewhere in remote Papua, New Guinea though she wonders why he is there. She decides to learn the truth as to whether he lives and if so why New Guinea. --------------- Marika¿s quest is well written and harrowing as she deals with horrific third world conditions including deadly sanitation, unclean water, disease, torture that even Cheney could not redefine otherwise and ceremonial rites of passage murders. However, though obviously a thriller, the insightful look at Marika as she witnesses first hand the horrendous gruesome mistreatment of humans towards other humans is horrific. To mentally survive she has to go numb because if she personalizes the incidents she sees and been embroiled in she would break down due to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Readers will marvel as she keeps a flicker of hope that mankind will learn and redeem itself even as she trots off to the next atrocity.----------- Harriet Klausner
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
DSaff More than 1 year ago
Marika travels the world in search of war stories to bring back to her readers. Little does she know the toll it is taking on her and her life. One person stands as a shining example of success for her - Robert Lewis. He is her idol and she has studied him for years. After his unexpected suicide, Marika determines that she will write an autobiography about him. She will even stay home to write. But, there is an unexpected letter that makes her believe that Robert is still alive. Should she search? Can she get there? If so, will she survive Papua New Guinea? Is Robert Lewis really still alive? What about Seb? Will he continue to love her? Kira Salak weaves a magnificent story about Marika and her demons. One of my favorite lines is found on pg. 337 and is spoken by Tobo. "Listen," he says to her sternly, "I will tell you a secret about your demons: they are never stronger than you." Come meet Marika, Seb, Tobo and the others. Take the journey to PNG. It is one that certainly captured my attention!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
ReviewYourBook.com More than 1 year ago
The White Mary
Kira Salak
Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2008
ISBN: 9780805088472
Reviewed by Dawn Janine Mitchell for ReviewYourBook.com, 12/2008
¿A journey of healing to personal salvation?¿
Marika Vecera is a war correspondent who is in search of her childhood hero, Robert Lewis, who was pronounced dead after an apparent suicide. However, Marika receives a letter from a missionary who claims to have seen Lewis alive in the jungle. Throughout the story, it seems as if Marika looks to him as a father figure, but later the reader sees a sudden change in the relationship, which is quite unbelievable.
Only one character seems true in this story: Tobo, Marika`s guide through the jungle. Tobo¿s character was full of old-world wisdom, and it was easy to believe in his authenticity. The descriptions of Papua were phenomenal.
I could almost feel myself present in the various places described. I was compelled to finish the book just to learn more about the culture, the different attitudes and beliefs of the tribes of New Guinea. However, the graphic depictions of torture and rape were quite unnecessary. It¿s best to sometimes leave descriptions up to the reader¿s imagination.
I have to admit that the description of the story was more appealing than the story itself. I didn¿t see much about the personal journey that rang true. In real life, such a journey takes time and more effort. The healing aspect of the book was just too far-fetched. Some parts of The White Mary were rather dull reading and others were just too graphic.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was hoping to read some original descriptions and original thought but this was way short on both. I thought the whole thing was artificial and pretty high school. Very disappointing.