Towards the end of my anthropology training, I discovered an interesting truth: fiction was much better at transporting readers to a different time and place than even the most vivid anthropologist’s ethnography. That’s because fiction writers are storytellers, and story is at the heart of human understanding.
Mary Mackey’s Earthsong Trilogy is a perfect example of this. Mackey takes the archeologist Marija Gimbutas’s skeletal descriptions of matriarchal Neolithic societies, and fleshes them out into vivid stories about what life was like——in all its texture and richness——in this peaceful culture before it’s people came into contact with violent, patriarchal tribes.
I particularly love the first book, The Year the Horses Came. It has vivid descriptions of a clan-based society on the coast of Brittany that is organized around women, children, and the enjoyment of life (as opposed to men, conflict, and the celebration of war). In the first ten pages the reader is transported into a foreign and beautiful world of communal longhouses centered around a Goddess Stone where people fish, farm, and celebrate the arrival of adulthood with egalitarian, non-violent rituals which involve no shaming or bodily mutilation. We are treated to details: women steam shellfish in rock and seaweed lined pits; a “Young Men’s Society,” practices drumming and dancing in preparation for a young woman’s coming-of-age day; and Marrah, the young female protagonist, anticipates with excitement the moment when she will throw her childhood necklace of seashells back to Amonah, goddess of the ocean, as part of her transition into adulthood.
Details like these, woven throughout the narrative, are what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz calls “thick description,” and this is what every cultural anthropologist strives for in her professional descriptions of the cultural “Other.” In Mackey’s case as a historical fiction writer, she is not describing what she sees while doing fieldwork, as an anthropologist would. She’s creating a cultural “Other” out of her experience, scholarship, and imagination. And its effect is just as compelling and challenging to the western reader as any ethnographic description of tribal societies in Africa or the Amazon. Her descriptions, set in the context of a compelling story, invite us to understand a society different than our own, and in this way, see our own culture with fresh, and perhaps critical eyes.
And it may even inspire us to envision a different, more peaceful culture of our own.
For more book reviews by Author & Anthropologist Tamis Hoover Renteria you are invited to visit her website.