Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Burmese adventure: Incident at Badamya

Incident at Badamya by Dorothy Gilman  (F GIL Main)

Reviewed by Jeanne

Most people know Dorothy Gilman for her marvelous “Mrs. Pollifax” series in which an elderly woman becomes a spy for the CIA. The books were popular enough to have had two movie adaptations, one with Rosalind Russell and one with Angela Lansbury. While there are light-hearted elements to the books, they aren’t silly slapstick things.  Instead, Mrs. P. uses her common sense, gut instinct and clear judgment of human nature to carry out missions.  Usually there was some sort of spiritual aspect to the books as well, not connected to a specific religion.

My favorite Gilman book wasn’t one of the Pollifax books, though I enjoyed them greatly. No, my favorite remains Incident at Badamya.  It’s another of those books I return to again and again, picking it up just read a favorite passage and reluctantly putting it down two hours later.

The story is set in Burma in 1950, a time of great upheaval in Asia.  Communist forces were moving in several countries.  Mao had taken over China, while the start of the Korean War was just a few weeks away.  Sixteen year old Genivieve Ferris, orphaned daughter of an American missionary, has decided it is her destiny to go to America, a place she knows only from old magazines and a few letters from relatives.  She’s grown up in Burma.  It’s been the only home she’s ever known, and these people are the only friends and family she’s ever had.  Still, something drives her to gather the last of the money, her passport and the address of the aunt she’s never met and to set out for Rangoon, where the steam ship will come.

But there are other forces abroad as well: a wounded American who may be a spy; soldiers and bandits; and passengers from the steamer, all of whom have secrets of their own: the wealthy, imperious woman in search of her son; the puppeteer; the author, the former prisoner.   They’ll all come together at Badamya, for better or worse, and all will be changed by their encounter.

After all these years I remain charmed by this book and by Gen herself, the waif who wonders if her thamma deva—a guardian spirit—will be able to follow her to America.  Gen is a mixture of worldly and naïve, woman and child, realist and believer, Christian and Buddhist.  As with all her books, Gilman seems to really know the locale, giving the reader a strong sense of place.   I always find Gilman’s books to have food for thought and for the spirit as well as being good adventures. This one has a bit of an otherworldly thread running through it, but it's never intrusive. For Gen, it's simply a matter of faith.

 I find it to be an uplifting book with an underlying gentleness despite some of the threats against characters.  At the end I feel all’s right with the world.

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