Review of Thomas Burns' The Man Who Caught No Birds

man-who-caught-no-birds-140The Man Who Caught No Birds
by Thomas Burns (Marshall Islands 1976–78)
201 pages

Reviewer Reilly Ridgell (Micronesia 1971–73)

WHEN I WRITE STORIES SET IN MICRONESIA where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer, all my main characters are American.  Host country nationals are often peripheral or secondary characters because my stories are ultimately about how Americans relate to the culture and lifestyle of the host country. For myself — though someday I might try — I feel uncomfortable putting a Micronesian as a main character because I don’t feel confident that I can accurately portray his or her aspirations, moods, thought processes, etc. As much as we get to know the culture, language, and people of the countries where we are stationed, we’re still Americans and we still view their world through American eyes.

Thomas Burns has written a novel set in the Marshall Islands where there are no American characters. Zero. Zip. Nada. Every character is a Marshallese islander. This is an ambitious undertaking, and subject to the criticism of being even somewhat arrogant or at least condescending. For example, I was bothered by the tone of the dialogue. It sounded a bit off, almost like oversimplified English dialogue spoken by a Native American character in a bad western movie, but it wasn’t really simplified. The sentences were complete, the grammar correct. Then I finally figured it out.  Look at the following:

“I am making copra with my family. Do you think the ship is really nearby?” Ahni asked.
“I do not know. I did not see it.  It has to come soon, though.”

Notice Burns is not using any contractions. “I am” instead of “I’m”, “I do not know” instead of “I don’t know”,” I did not see it,” instead of “I didn’t see it.” He is consistent with this style throughout the book: no contractions in the dialogue.  This gives a strange texture to the speech.  I guess he was looking for a convention by which he could set his characters off as not being American. In truth they would have been speaking Marshallese to each other, thus his dialogue is an English representation of what they really would have said.  So they speak English, but it sounds different, so we realize they are Marshallese. But it still feels odd.

That aside, Burns has hit the nail on the head in terms of the painful choices young Marshallese men and women have to make.  The old ways are dying, the new ones are confusing and ineffective. Their culture is based on extended families who share everything out of necessity for survival. But the money economy has taken its toll.

Simply put, the islanders needed each other to survive, but they strove mightily to keep their need for survival from getting in the way of their desire to live well.

Unfortunately that often led to the “crabs in the bucket” situation where when someone starts to get ahead, the others pull them down.

And for the people in the outer islands, the district centers beckon with their bright lights, cold drinks, booze, gambling, stores, and restaurants. Beckoning from even further is the United States, where thousands of Micronesians, including Marshallese, have emigrated due to the provisions of the Compacts of Free Association that allow them to live and work in the U.S.

Burns’ main character, Ahni, acquires a nickname he despises, “The Man Who Caught No Birds,” due to an empty-handed hunting experience. He wants to stay on his island, fish, and become a navigator. Unfortunately his mentor, while a good fisherman, never finished his own navigator training. Everything seems to go wrong for Ahni, who ends up leaving his outer island for the district center, becomes a taxi driver, then serves on a ship, but finally ends up finding his way with the help of a missionary school. Along the way Burns does an excellent job of describing the lifestyles of outer islands and district centers and focusing on the changes wrought by the outside world and the money economy. The aimlessness and fatalism experienced by Ahni, who wonders if he really is in control of his life, is actually repeated thousands of times over throughout Micronesia — and perhaps much of the Third World.

The writing is good , and the story moves along quite well with many interesting characters and well developed conflicts.

I noticed only a couple of typos, and the right margin is not justified, which sometimes leaves annoying long blank spaces at the end of a line. Remember typesetting? No publisher is indicated in the book, but Burns’ website links it to CreateSpace.

All in all, Burns has done a credible job of illuminating the myriad of issues precipitated by the cultural change in the Marshalls (and all of Micronesia) resulting from the intrusion of world powers, including the United States. The ending seemed a bit too easy, but Burns has produced a worthwhile effort. Whether Marshallese readers would feel his characterizations are accurate is another question.

Reilly Ridgell is the author of the widely used textbook Pacific Nations and Territories and co-author of its elementary level version Pacific Neighbors. He also wrote the anthology Bending to the Trade Winds: Stories of the Peace Corps Experience in Micronesia and the novel, Green Pearl Odyssey.  He is currently a dean at Guam Community College.

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One Comment

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  • I have resided in various countries in North Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, and thoroughly enjoyed The Man Who Caught No Birds by Thomas Burns. I feel that the literary value of this work lies in something that crosses geographical and cultural borders. In fact, I was reminded of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe due precisely to the aspect of universality of theme. The themes explored via The Man Who Caught No Birds are as personally identifiable as thought provoking, well beyond the confines of the story’s geographic and socio-economic setting. That is, Anhi’s experiences, relationships, conflicts, struggles, aspirations and ultimate realizations are part of the Human experience – not simply a “Marshallese” experience.

    Burns’ Anhi struggles, in many ways, just as Achebe’s Okonkwo. We experience, through Anhi, the clash of values, priorities and cultures that come to life in the context of one man’s drive and rebellion against the inevitable. This, I feel, is every man’s story at one point in an individual’s life. The painful process of negotiation throughout this personal struggle brings to the fore the true essence of the person. The outcome of the struggle is inconsequential because it is the character of the person that is to be evaluated and not any tangible objective. That is why the ending may seem “a bit too easy”, as stated by a former reviewer. The ending is merely a literary formality in this case. I identified with Anhi on a personal level and found both comfort and inspiration through his experiences.

    Finally, I will comment that this is a work that merits reading and discussion. It is multi-dimensional, and I have found that readers’ insights, opinions and perspectives validate the true richness of its characters.

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