As I chopped down bamboo to build a pit-toilet in our village, I considered bamboo’s various and wonderful uses. I’d been reading about how the ingenious and half-mad Allie Fox, aka “Father”, put bamboo to effective use where his family lived in the Mosquito Coast of Honduras. One of his many successes was waterproofing their roof by overlapping split bamboo. I thought several times of singing “Under the bam, under the boo” just like the Fox family did, but I didn’t know the tune.
Not long after, a particularly hard rain poured down on the thatched roof of our hut and dripped in here and there. I found myself wishing we’d already converted it to Father’s bamboo-style. As the rain poured down on us, I read about how a torrential rain flooded the lagoon where Father and the Fox family lived in their makeshift driftwood hut, threatening to destroy their little lives there.
I read by candlelight and eagerly flipped the pages, excited to see what would happen next, as the mosquitos and other nighttime bugs worked their way through the cracks of the thin walls of our own hut. I wished I’d had a huge roll of mosquito netting the way the Fox family did when they first moved to Honduras, and I dreamed of mosquito-proofing our entire hut. When the Fox family no longer had their mosquito netting, Father set up little smoking pots to ward off the bugs as their hut-turned-boat worked its way upriver. I wondered which would be worse: smoke filling our hut, or bugs.
A day later, as I myself drifted across the river in a dug-out canoe, I thought about the ways that Father improved their local designs, and wondered what would work best for us. It got me thinking about bamboo again. Covered walkways between our huts would sure make it easier to deal with the relentless rain and mud.
To say that there were “parallels” between my life and the incredible story of the Fox family in Paul Theroux’s “Mosquito Coast” would be a gross understatement. Certainly not everything was the same. But for the first half of the book and more, I often felt like I was looking in a mirror; it was just so familiar!
This is the premise: Allie Fox, who has a wife and four young kids, is a charismatic and incredibly smart engineer, technician, inventor, and all-around Renaissance Man. In that same sense he believes that America is in dire need of a rebirth, for a host of good reasons. And no matter how many hours he spends telling people about their problems every day, no one’s willing to listen to him. So, he does the only sensible thing a man in his position could do: he takes his whole family on the slow boat to his Promised Land, the remote jungles of the Mosquito Coast in Honduras. There, with his unique vision and cunning know-how, he’s free to rebuild society in his own image, working hard to turn the jungle into a paradise, and avoiding all the “scavengers” in America. His family follows him almost unquestioningly every step of the way, despite a host of foreboding warnings.
If you’re asking yourself, “how in the world does anyone’s life have any comparisons to that?” well let me tell you. Despite the many warnings we received along the way from various family members and friends, my wife and I packed up a few belongings and our newborn baby and moved across the world to the undeveloped island of Madagascar. Here we “live poor” by all American standards, whether in town or otherwise. And most of the time I spent reading Theroux’s “The Mosquito Coast”, we were living in a village next to a large river in the jungle here: no electricity, no running water, not even any water wells (one point in which we were significantly behind the Fox family in the Mosquito Coast).
The ostensible goal of our life here is to create a better life right in the middle of un-development and poverty, in the middle of the jungle too. And much like one of Father’s main ideas was to bring something new and transformative (ice) to the most remote people he could find, so we also believe we can bring transformation and new life to some of the most remote people left on earth. In the whole process, we hope to leave behind many of the flaws in American life and culture. We’re not content to rest in luxury, over-consumption, and the easy life that could be handed to us, but instead we were compelled to move across the globe and work hard to see a better life in this tiny corner of the planet. Like Father, I like being a “jack of all trades,” and I love growing my own food.
Somewhat unfortunately, the comparisons don’t stop there. Like Father, I’ve also been known to be quite harshly critical of just about anything and I’m more than willing to share my views with anyone in earshot. Even many of Father’s particular complaints are shared by me. A great example: I also think sleeping is a waste of my time, and I’d love to sleep less. Nor would anyone dare to accuse me of being too patriotic towards America, or optimistic about its future and lifestyle. Heck, just today I was reading a headline about warships representing dozens of countries massing in the Strait of Hormuz in preparation for an Israeli attack on Iran; they were saying “Prepare for World War III!” One of my first thoughts was, “My family is a lot better off here in remote Madagascar than we would be in the US if any of that stuff goes down!” Trust me: if or when you’ve read Theroux’s “The Mosquito Coast”, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. But other times I honestly wonder if I’m just dragging my family around with me by the forcefulness of my personality, or if it’s really what they want as well and if it’s what’s best for our lives.
Thankfully, I’m pretty sure there are still enough significant differences between us and the Fox family in the book. For one, I don’t think I’m delusional like Father was and I definitely don’t make up lies to convince my family to follow me. I know I’m no inventor and nowhere near the genius that Father was. Certainly I don’t have the contempt for Christians like he did. Quite the opposite: we’re here in Madagascar as missionaries! And while I don’t appreciate all products of the Western world and culture, I think we’re wise enough to pick and choose what’s useful and simply form our lives around those products differently. Maybe most significantly, I also listen and learn from the people around me and I haven’t and won’t cut off contact from our family and friends all over the world (though that contact is sometimes difficult due to where we live). Instead I highly value their advice and input in our lives. That lack of insular living will hopefully shield us from a multitude of dangers that Father led his family into.
Maybe “The Mosquito Coast” by Paul Theroux uniquely appeals to someone like me and in my position. I know for sure that all his ideas for improving their life in the jungle will weigh heavily in my mind when we finally get the chance to set up our hut(s) for long-term living in a remote village next year. But I imagine that the surprising story and intriguing characters will be thrilling even to those readers who’ve never left their homes. Certainly its literary ambitions, its foreshadowing and parallels, are executed perfectly. There’s just something fascinating about getting a look into the mind of Father as he slowly unravels and the world crumbles around him. This isn’t a heartwarming tale – make no mistake of that. But the intensity of the main character and the plot keep driving it on into oblivion, and I think it rivals Joseph Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness” for a place among the classics. Give it a read, and maybe step for a moment into part of the life I myself have been living.
P.S. This book has been made into a movie in 1986 and Harrison Ford does a great job acting the character of “Father”. I’d seen the movie several years ago before I read the book and I was enthralled by it then. But like all good books, the movie definitely isn’t as good if you read the book first, although it’s still quite good. If you don’t have the patience for the book (or you’ve already read it), you should give the movie a try!
Pages: 384 FOA Pages: 4425 (The total number of pages reported upon by the Friends of Atticus)