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THE DUST DIARIES by Owen Sheers

THE DUST DIARIES

Seeking the African Legacy of Arthur Cripps

By Owen Sheers

Pub Date: March 25th, 2004
ISBN: 0-618-16464-2
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Poet Sheers, a descendant of his subject, lustrously re-creates the life of Reverend Arthur Cripps: poet, African missionary, thwarted father, a man about six leagues ahead of his European contemporaries.

Writing about “my great, great uncle . . . reflected through my imagination,” the author pays close attention to the surroundings: “the muezzin's call to pray, skittering across the sky from one of the minarets,” the coral-rag buildings of Zanzibar, the ruins of Arthur’s church, where he is buried with “a long key in the lock of his grave.” Sheers is a highly visual writer; impressions and meanings reveal themselves like the horizons of a dig. (“There were flecks of grey in his neatly-parted hair and Arthur thought again of the white brine on the black funnels, the signature of the storm.”) As the author seeks to take his relative’s measure, he finds plenty of storms: Arthur’s cherished, and pregnant, beloved’s father would not let them marry (“Think you can have your way with us, do you? Well, damn you, Mr. Cripps!”); he saw the grotesqueries of WWI as fought out in Africa; and he forever ran counter to the church and the colonial administration in the respect with which he treated the African people. Arthur opposed the hut tax and bitterly noted the “asymmetry of indulgence on behalf of the philanthropic nature of European settlement.” Ultimately he was hounded out of his official capacity, a man too appreciative of the Shona’s highly developed spiritual intelligence and the maturity of their belief system. But he returned as an independent missionary, an itinerant teacher, minister, and doctor. Sheers reveals Arthur to be a man in love with beauty, with Keats, with faith, and with the people among whom he lived and died.

A neat piece of creative nonfiction. (Map, photos)