Into the Jungle, by Erica Ferencik

Lily has escaped her life as a foster child by moving to Bolivia, the homeland of her favorite foster mother. Lily doesn’t really have a job, but her willingness to work hard cleaning a hostel, her frugality, and her Spanish skills help her scrape along. In Into the Jungle, by Erica Ferencik, Lily falls in love and follows her lover even further away from “civilization.” This novel unfolds over the course of a year as Lily tries to survive in a village in the Bolivian Amazon forest. This year is the hardest one in Lily’s far-from-easy life so far.

Everyone tells Lily that it’s a bad idea to follow Omar into the Amazon. Even Omar tells her this. And they are definitely not wrong. When a tarantula falls into her breakfast on her first morning in Ayachero, Lily is ready to bolt. Only her profound stubbornness and her love for Omar—he is her home, she tells people more than once—keeps her in place. There is heat, humidity, hordes of insects, resentful family members, poachers, unfriendly indigenous tribes, hunger, disease, and more trying to drive Lily out of the Amazon.

Ayachero is almost a textbook example of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. The villagers are struggling to keep themselves fed because game has gotten scarce. (Lily attempts to be a vegetarian in the rainforest but ends up having to eat meat to keep from becoming completely malnourished.) The indigenous people, the Tatinga, have had to completely change their ways because they have lost so much territory. Poachers, miners, and others, have almost completely destroyed the ecosystem. The only way to have a steady life seems to be to leave the jungle entirely. Omar and, to a lesser extent, Lily, love the natural world (even if it is very uncomfortable and difficult). They might have been able to make a life, however hard, in Ayachero, if it weren’t for a very determined batch of mahogany hunters and a terrible case of leishmaniasis. The two threats lead to a pretty exciting climax.

Into the Jungle takes some time to establish itself. I found Lily a difficult character to understand because we are told more about her than we can learn from observation. She’s alternately very tough when she faces emotional battery from her lover’s family and very whiny when it comes to physical hardship. There were some times when she breaks down that I wanted to pointedly remind her that she chose to go to Ayachero and refused multiple offers of an out. Once she gets the hang of how hard life in the village is and the plot starts to ramp up, I was glad I hung around through the initial chapters. This turned out to be an interesting book in an interesting place.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

A section of the Amazon rainforest in western Brazil that is being deforested. (Image via Wikicommons)

Women Talking, by Miriam Toews

Trigger warning for rape.

A foreword at the beginning of Miriam Toews devastating and infuriating novel, Women Talking, explains that the plot is based on a true story. Between 2005 and 2009, hundreds of women in a Bolivian Mennonite community were drugged, abused, and raped. Eight men were eventually caught, tried, and sentenced for the crimes. Women Talking takes place over two days while some of the women hold a meeting to decide what they should do before their attackers return to the community while they are out on bail.

The novel is narrated by August Epps, who takes minutes for the meeting because all of the women and girls at the Molotschna community are illiterate. These women and girls have been through horrors and are still being victimized by the leaders (all men) of their colony. Over the course of the meeting, we learn that the Bolivian government only got involved because the bishop, Peters, was forced to call them in…to protect the accused from attacks by their victims. The men were only charged and jailed because it was safer for them. The women and girls have received no medical care except for some stolen animal antibiotics. All offers of counseling have been rejected by the bishop. Now, the women have been told that, in order to remain members of the colony, they must forgive their attackers and allow these men back into their community. If they cannot forgive, they will be excommunicated and exiles.

The meeting is called to decide what the women will do. Will they leave because they cannot forgive? Or will they stay and say they have forgiven their attackers? These questions are complicated by a host of issues the women have with their community and religion. At one point, they wonder if they are considered humans or animals by the men. At another point, they wonder about the state of their souls because so many of them cannot forgive and forget the way the Bishop and the other men (not the attackers) want them to. August adds some asides for context and his own views when the women ask what he thinks. These asides and tangents served to remind me that these women have been silenced in so many ways. They cannot even record their thoughts without a man to document them. No matter how sympathetic August may be, he still interprets, translates, and corrects what the women say; we don’t hear them directly.

Women Talking is a microcosm of so many things: misogyny, power and autonomy, language, faith, post-traumatic stress disorder, reconciliation and forgiveness, inequality, injustice, lack of empathy, repeated victimization, sexuality, recovery. This book may be impossible for some readers because of its contents and because it is based on real events. For readers who do take it on, it is a profound shout from women who are not truly heard by the men in their community, who are not believed by those men, and who may never see any kind of justice. My heart is still bleeding from what I read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.