Herbalists and Humanitarians

  • Catherine Cooper
    White Elephant. Freehand Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Stephen Ney

The Berringers relocate from Nova Scotia to an impoverished village in eastern Sierra Leone that is about to be engulfed in the civil war that reduced the country to tatters in the 1990s. White Elephant helps us understand why their relocating, and by implication much humanitarian work in the “developing world,” is a white elephant. Dr. Richard Berringer, the father of teenaged Tor and husband of Ann, eventually comes to understand the Sierra Leoneans enough to realize that “[t]hey didn’t want what he was offering them. They wanted to continue with their traditions.”

Richard’s family is at war too—a war that began as soon as he and Ann met. Interspersed with their cruelties and insensitivities to each other are occasional gifts: Tor offers to help Richard kill the rats that torment his father; Richard stays up all night cleaning and caring for Ann when she gets dysentery; Ann cooks the delicacy of imported spaghetti for Tor, who has been on hunger strike in the hope of forcing his parents to take him back to Canada. But these all turn out to be white elephants too—unacknowledged, unreciprocated. They are succeeded by more cruelties and insensitivities. The end of the novel, when all three characters are at the end of their rope, brings the faint hope of an end to the dismal cycle—but only because desperation makes the status quo impossible.

White Elephant’s brilliance is in deftly balancing the perspectives of these three utterly dissimilar characters, whose voices each occupy one third of the chapters and who each earn from the reader an equal degree of sympathy. And antipathy, because for every chapter of one character’s account, we get two chapters of others’ accounts, and self-justifying illusions are exposed as a result. The characters don’t have much energy for humanitarianism because they’re preoccupied by terrible memories of the deeds that motivated them to flee to the impoverished, isolated place that seems perfectly chosen for removing them from the consequences of their mistakes and distracting them from their miseries.

Cooper also balances a cultural relativism that would deny the possibility of any real understanding or helping with a universalism that puts the Berringers and the people of their village in the same sinking boat. This is evident especially in the conflict between spirituality and science that is near the heart of the friction between Richard and Ann, who throughout the novel becomes increasingly absorbed in the self-talk advised by A Course in Miracles: “This table doesn’t mean anything . . . God did not create betrayal, so it is not real.” This conflict is also near the heart of the incomprehension between the Sierra Leoneans and the Canadians that impedes the clinic’s effectiveness. Canadian readers might prefer the scientific methods of healing promoted by Dr. Berringer’s clinic to the incantations of the herbalist whom Richard comes to see as the chief obstacle to his humanitarian success. But the further we get in the novel, the more we realize that Tor’s problem with Sierra Leone isn’t really about food, Ann’s sickness isn’t really about mould, and Richard’s reason for coming to Sierra Leone isn’t really to provide medicine. The problems aren’t essentially scientific. Neither culture has solid answers, but their questions look a lot the same.

This review “Herbalists and Humanitarians” originally appeared in Concepts of Vancouver: Poetics, Art, Media Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 235 (Winter 2017): 137-138.

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