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BC's Tales of the Pacific | ‘Melal’

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I JUST finished an excellent book and I want to recommend it to you. “Melal” is a fictional story about a family on Ebeye, in the Kwajalein atoll of the Marshalls. The author lived on “Kwaj” for years and knows his subject. In fact, everything about the story felt like it was real, the characters actual people whom the author knew.


From the publisher: “On Good Friday, 1981, Rujen Keju and his two sons come face to face with their complicated inheritance- one that includes years of atomic testing and the continued military presence of the U.S. in the Pacific. In this highly original work of history and adventure, novelist Robert Barclay weave together characters and stories from mythological times with those of the present day to give readers a rare and unsparing look at life in the contemporary Pacific.”
Now from me: Rujen and his two sons, Jebro and Nuke (named after the bomb) live in the rotten, stinking hole known as Ebeye, full of trash, disease, filth, murder, rape and suicide. Rujen works at the sewage treatment plant on the nearby island of Kwajalein, which is run by the American military, and his sons go on a fishing expedition to visit their ancestral island, now off-limits due to American missile testing. Everything that could go wrong does for these three, some of it comic and some of it tragic, and often the fault of arrogant Americans who act like they own the place and treat islanders like they are ignorant savages.
Let’s start with Rujen. He loses his workboots on the ferry ride, then steals a bike for a joyride back to his elementary school. Realizing the absurdity of the detour, he finally shows up to work late, where his good boss, Andy, is absent.
But it isn’t really about work, Rujen’s gloomy mood is driven by the frustration he feels because the Americans seem to run every part of his life. It is a love-hate relationship. He loves the shoes, the electric fans, the Pepsi, and the money that the Americans bring. But he hates that he feels like a servant, a second-class citizen, that even when the Americans don’t intend to, they make him and his fellow islanders feel like losers. His home island was stolen, he lives in the squalor of Ebeye, and he makes a living cleaning up the sewage of the very people who have taken everything from him.
He is a member of the Catholic church, which makes him feel guilty for abandoning his island gods, but it is the only place where he feels like he is equal to the Americans. He is accepted as one of them. Until, that is, disaster strikes. First, he accidentally violates the statue of Jesus, then takes a very un-American position regarding a pair of dolphins the locals have caught and intend to eat.
His boys, Jebro and Nuke, go fishing in the lagoon and plan on stopping at the island of their ancestors, a small but symbolically important rebellion against American rules. How could a foreign American tell an islander that he is trespassing on the very island on which he was born? Absurd! The boys have a successful fishing outing until a boat driven by young American delinquents splashes past them and sinks their fragile craft. Life hangs in the balance as they struggle against the currents to reach the shore.
The book was very satisfying on many levels. It is a rare glimpse into the complicated relationship between Americans and islanders, told from the islander point of view. Jebro covets the powerful boat and flashy fishing poles of the Americans as much as he hates their arrogance and sense of entitlement. Rujen wants to be accepted by the Americans at church at the same time he curses them as spoiled children. He hates them enough to call them names but envies them enough not to do it to their face.
I cannot do the book justice in this short space. The characters and word pictures are far too complicated for that. I have only touched on the marvelous complexity and character development found in its pages. Please find a copy of “Melal,” by Robert Barclay. A reader living in the Marianas will find much of it familiar.
BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.

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