Thomas Keneally | Critical Review by Thomas Swick

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Thomas Keneally.
This section contains 916 words
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Critical Review by Thomas Swick

SOURCE: A review of The Place Where Souls Are Born, in Commonweal, June 5, 1992, pp. 22-3.

In the following review, Swickfaults The Place Where Souls are Born for its "confused mosiac" of Native American history and for Keneally's dependence on secondary sources.

Here is an interesting idea: A book by an Australian, introduced by a Welsh woman, about the least "European" region of the United States.

It helps your natural dubiousness to learn that the Australian is the highly regarded Thomas Keneally (author of, among other books, Schindler's List) and the Welsh woman is the doyenne of contemporary travel writers, Jan Morris, who over the last few years has enlisted some of her favorite authors as contributors to a travel series called "Destinations." With The Place Where Souls Are Born, Keneally joins an impressive list that includes M. F. K. Fisher, Herbert Gold, and William Murray.

I am sorry to report, however, that his book is not as engaging as the others in the series. My suspicions were aroused when I turned to the acknowledgments page at the back. (New books, like new cars, should be looked over carefully, front and back, before being started.) Almost the entire page is taken up with the titles of the books that helped Keneally along the way, while four lines are given to the names of the people. This, I thought to myself, could be a long haul.

The journey covers four states: Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico (all decoratively mapped in the front). But the book is not concerned with the mechanics of travel—we hear little about the long drives from state to state and almost nothing about the author's wife and daughter who are accompanying him—but rather the ravages of history.

Keneally starts off, outside Denver, with some recreational skiing and lengthy ruminations on the Ute Indians. From the former activity, we get: "Aerobics at high and lovely altitudes have a very humanizing influence on a marriage"—an observation that is felicitous even while being somewhat pompous.

But Keneally's real interest is with the Indians. "The Ute were intransigent nomads…. They were dangerous fellows, a peril to European livestock and to European stock. Like the Celts, they honored warriorhood. They were stub-born."

This passage sets the tone for the rest of the book, which is replete with historical vignettes, culled from the books listed on the acknowledgments page, interlaced with personal reflections. By the time we get to New Mexico, having made a counter-clockwise loop from Denver, we have read about more tribes than we can remember. Keneally, apart from his obvious respect for these peoples, seems to delight in the very mention of their names and the names of their settlements. "A pause was thereby brought to the essential Eagle Clan and Arrow Shaft ceremonies. Other Hopi in Oraibi, Waipi, Shungopovi, and Mishongnovi, so that they could take over the ceremonies and continue the cycle, decided that the population of Awatobi should be massacred."

There seem to be two fundamental problems with Keneally's approach. A travel book—especially one built, like this one, around a journey (as opposed to the "sedentary" travel books of Gerald Brenan and Elliot Paul)—is by nature cursory and impressionistic. The history of the native peoples of the American Southwest is ancient and complex, and so does not lend itself to this sort of passing glance. Instead of a revealing portrait, we get a confused mosaic.

Considering this handicap, it might have made more sense to focus on how Native Americans are faring in the "European" Southwest of today. In fact, that Southwest is curiously absent from these pages. Apart from some brief descriptions of the suburban sprawl of Phoenix and Albuquerque, there is little sense of contemporary life. Too many passages, with their recollections of the past, sound as if they were written—or at least could have been—back home in Sydney.

One of the most interesting parts of the book, for me, is the discussion of D. H. Lawrence—a superb travel writer himself—and his relationship to this part of the world. "We cannot go back to the savages," he wrote, "not a stride. We can be in sympathy with them. We can take a great curve in their direction…. But we cannot turn the current of our life backwards…. So many 'reformers' and 'idealists' who glorify the savages in America. They are death-birds, life-haters. Renegades." Keneally, calling Lawrence "an unrepentant Caucasian," claims that his point is "the crucial debate in our relationship to tribal people and is still being argued in New Mexico and elsewhere." But, sad to say, it is not much argued in these pages.

The other problem with the book is that Keneally depends so heavily on secondary sources. He spends entirely too much time with his history books, especially for a man who is so seemingly enamored of the intuitive ways of native peoples. Rarely are we introduced to living people, and when we are, rarely do they speak. There is virtually no dialogue—a critical failing for a travel book.

I suspect that the culprits here are Keneally's wife and daughter. Though, as I've said, we hardly hear of them, they are always silently present, keeping the author from getting around and meeting the people who would give his book life. Last year at the Key West Literary Seminar on Travel Writing, a distinguished panel was asked if travel writing had to be a solitary pursuit. The unanimous answer was yes. "Sad but true," added Jan Morris.

My advice to Keneally: Next time, leave home without them.

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This section contains 916 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Thomas Swick
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