When Jenny Dunfree, a graduate student in tropical ornithology, is banished to a remote, Panamanian-sponsored birding project near the Columbian border, she is given one directive by her superior: Don't piss anyone off. Almost immediately, Jenny encounters problems with this assignment. The study site where she's sent to observe nesting harpy eagles is located near an indigenous village, and upon arrival she's informed that her attendance is mandatory at many community functions. Jenny finds the native Kuna people to be a prickly lot, quick to take offense; their values, language, and customs incomprehensible to her. Equally confusing is the surrounding rainforest with its myriad of unknown and impossible to identify species. Her bewilderment extends even to the nesting eagles which the project's founder, a prominent raptor authority, insisted were rare harpy eagles but as far as Jenny can tell are a lesser species "of no interest to the Republic of Panama or any other national entity." With no option out, Jenny slogs on with the research and her required attendance at weekly "town hall" meetings in the Kuna village. Jenny's liaison with the native people is Pedro, a man whose early education at a mission school left him fluent in English but cynical and detached from his own culture. As weeks pass, Jenny becomes acquainted with other members of the community: Eulogio, the handsome and charismatic leader; shy Iris who married and then was abandoned by Jenny's predecessor in the harpy eagle project; the racially prejudiced Anselmo; and Ceferino, in whom Jenny discovers a shared passion for the natural world. In this lawless frontera, Jenny also encounters outsiders with their own agendas for the Kunas and the surrounding rainforest. Through her eyes, the reader is drawn into Kuna culture and its struggle to retain a traditional identity in the face of erosion from both outside and within the community.
In this autobiographical debut novel, anthropologist Louise Young draws on memories of her 20 years of living and interacting with the Kuna tribe of Panama to create a unique reading experience about a young woman who becomes dangerously enraptured with an indigenous culture. Graduate student Jenny Dunfrey is sent as far south as a person can go in North America, to the border between Panama and Columbia, where she is assigned to study a rare breed of eagles. Dunfrey is warned to avoid angering the local natives, but with no grasp of their language or culture, this is easier said than done. At first, she is the object of curiosity and speculation, due to her height and her blonde hair, but then she meets Pedro, an English-speaking native who guides her into the Kuna community. Young brings each member of the tribe to vivid life, as Dunfrey learns a series of valuable lessons about the limits of adaptation.
- Fiction + Literature Themes, Fiction + Literature Genres
- Literary, Nature + Animals, Human Qualities + Behavior, Work + the Workplace, Conflicts + Dualities, Settings, Literary Genres + Types of Novels
- November 1, 2009
- November 1, 2009
- Louise Young