City of the Beasts

A rare negative book review from January, 2003, of Isabel Allende’s City of the Beasts. I find that I still feel the same way a decade later.

Fifteen-year-old Alexander Cold’s mother has cancer and is going to a special clinic with Alexander’s father; he and his sisters get dispatched to live with aunts for duration. In Alexander’s case, it means that he accompanies his eccentric, acerbic Aunt Kate on an expedition to the farthest reaches of the Amazon River, in search of a murderous sasquatch-like creature called “The Beast”. Ultimately the expedition encounters an Indian tribe, the People of the Mist, who have always eschewed contact with outsiders—and also with “The Beasts”, a race of creatures the People of the Mist worship as gods.

There’s a lot to like in this book; once Allende gets past the first couple of chapters, which are completely atrocious (I nearly stopped reading, and only continued because my sister gave me the book for Christmas and I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt) she’s quite a good storyteller. I’m at a bit of a disadvantage, reviewing this book; I’ve never read anything else by Allende, and according to the dust jacket this is her first book for young readers. Thus, I don’t know whether the awful beginning is typical, or whether she forgot to write “down” after she’d gotten a couple of chapters into it.

But be that as it may, there’s a lot to dislike, too. I’ll start with the character Ludovic Leblanc, egotistical anthropologist and blithering idiot. He’s the only scientist in the party, and he’s an imbecile, less interested in what’s before his eyes than what’s in his books. He’s not at all suited for life in the jungle, and he seems to know nothing about it—and yet, he was chosen to lead this expedition because of his vast experience in the field. He’s as two-dimensional as a playing card.

Okay, he’s a badly written character. But it’s the attitude that bugs me—as I say, he’s the only scientist. All through the book, the message is “think with your heart, not your head.” I’m not one to downplay the importance of feelings and intuition, but not using your head is just stupid.

And then there are the People of the Mist, who are portrayed as living a sylvan, idyllic life without modern goods, without modern thoughts, without modern technology. Really, we’re asked, why should they change? Their system has worked for them for thousands of years. They are happy, says Allende. Again, we have the pluralistic, post-modern message: our way is no better than theirs.

In a word: hogwash.

I have three children. Just minutes before my second son was born, the heart rate on the fetal monitor dropped to nearly zero—the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck. The nurse immediately got Jane to stop pushing, and got her breathing oxygen. Meanwhile, she did what she could to get the baby to shift position. It worked—she got him untangled, and he was born safely. Had there been no fetal monitor, likely he would have been stillborn—a little baby boy, perfectly developed and ready to be born, dead of a stupid accident minutes before birth.

I’ll take modern technology, thank you. I’ll take Western Civilization, with all of its Dead White Males, against whatever pap the multi-culti crowd are pushing these days. It works, better than anything else we’ve come up with. And I’ll tell you, sitting here in my warm study, in a comfortable chair, with my little girl gurgling in her playpen, is much more pleasant than living in the jungle, “in harmony with nature”, worshipping the spirits in every plant and animal and worshipping giant ground sloths as gods.

Sorry, Isabel. No, thank you.

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