Journalist Clark's carefully researched and often dramatic first book follows the residents of a small village on a remote Indonesian island as they engage in the tradition of hunting whales and adjust to the incursions of the outside world.
Over the course of three years, the author, a two-time Fulbright recipient, spent months at a time on the island of Lembata with the Lamalerans, a group of hunter-gatherers. Of the 1,500 members of the tribe, 300 are dedicated to hunting sperm whales as well as other marine mammals and fish. Scrupulously leaving himself out of the narrative, Clark focuses on a few individuals to tell the story of the group. Chief among them are two young men who aspire to become harpoonists, the most prestigious—and dangerous—position on the whaling boat. Jon, raised by his grandparents after his parents abandoned him, struggles to find a place in a society that scorns him. Ben, an expert harpooner and boatmaker, finds himself drawn by the attractions of life outside the island. The author also closely follows Ben’s father, Ignatius, and other older builders and masters of the long rowboats whose construction, unchanged for generations, is guided by the “Ways of the Ancestors.” Clark pays less attention to the women of the group, many of whom are sent away to be educated and work elsewhere in Indonesia, sometimes returning to care for elderly family members, though he does devote space to the daily life of Jon's sister Ika, who wants to marry a young man from another tribe. In between the stories of the individuals, the author chronicles the history of the group and the ceremonies he attended in a society that meshes Catholic faith and animistic religion. Perhaps surprisingly, among the chief villains of the narrative are the World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy, which promote whale-watching rather than whale-killing. The author argues that sperm whales are less endangered than the Lamaleran society.
An insightful examination of a little-known culture.