How does one weigh past evils against future good deeds? This is the central question of this at times compelling, at times vexing biographical sketch.
Dr. Anne Marie Spoerry (1918-1999) spent 50 years in East Africa, primarily in Kenya, serving local people. She was a “flying doctor” who, utilizing her pilot’s license and a rickety but reliable old plane, traveled to remote areas to provide much-needed health care to generations of Kenyans. “Mama Daktari” was a legend to thousands. But she also held deep secrets. During World War II, Spoerry had worked in the French Resistance against the Nazis; when she was caught, she ended up at the notorious Ravensbrück camp. Subsequently, she kept her war experiences almost wholly to herself, in part because she surely suffered, but also because while there, she compromised—as any of us might have—and utilized access to a likely paramour, as well as her medical experience, to better position herself. In so doing, she tortured and killed other prisoners and sent others to their deaths. Heminway (Yonder: A Place in Montana, 2000, etc.), a writer and documentary filmmaker who has won two Emmys and two Peabody Awards, spends a great deal of time investigating Spoerry’s actions at Ravensbrück though surprisingly little exploring how to weigh them in light of her unquestionably virtuous deeds for the final decades of her life. Thus, the cranky white savior–type doctor (with awful bedside manner) who may have also collaborated with the Nazis becomes both hero and villain, as the author fails to interrogate the meaning of these contradictions. Furthermore, Heminway refers throughout to “Africa,” as if Africa the continent is an undifferentiated mass. He is telling a story almost exclusively based in Kenya, and yet he discusses Africa and Africans as if this massive continent of 1.2 billion people is a single country.
A fascinating story in an occasionally frustrating recounting.