Following in the footsteps of his missionary great-grandfather, Montgomery journeys to the remote South Seas in search of pagan rituals, native magic and the story of an early martyr.
What he finds is hardly idyllic. Leapfrogging among south Pacific archipelagos—the Solomons, the Reef Islands and Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides)—Montgomery encounters natives still struggling to escape ignorance, poverty and civil war. True, the cannibalism once practiced in Melanesia is gone. But instead of the lush paradise one would expect, Montgomery discovers that most of these remote island outposts have hardly progressed since American GIs moved on following World War II. With no jobs and no prospects, natives seem to spend most of their days drinking kava or chewing betel nuts, two opiates derived from local plants. The author sets out in search of the pagan rituals that are still being practiced there despite a century of evangelical work by Anglicans, Seventh-day Adventists, Roman Catholics and others. Montgomery finds that native magic, or “kastom,” still holds great power among the locals, but the supposed “shaman,” or holy men, seem generally to be drug-hazed con artists whose boasts of magic powers and native myths would make most grade-schoolers skeptical. Not Montgomery: Indeed, the author approaches his subject with the conviction of a wide-eyed believer, even after one shaman after the other declines his requests for a demonstration of magic powers. Montgomery is a talented writer, and this tour is delivered in vivid, precise prose, but his failure to ask hard questions and his tendency to strain for drama where it doesn't exist mar what should have been a more clear-eyed travelogue.
Travel fans will enjoy Montgomery's colorful, evocative narrative, but will want to take his survey of South Seas folklore with more than a few grains of salt.