THE DUST DIARIES: Seeking the African Legacy of Arthur Cripps

Owen Sheers, Author
Owen Sheers, Author . Houghton Mifflin $23 (310p) ISBN 978-0-618-16464-6
Reviewed on: 02/02/2004
Release date: 03/01/2004
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In this limpid biography, Welsh poet Sheers reconstructs his English great-great-uncle's unorthodox missionary career in colonial southern Rhodesia. Intrigued by Arthur Cripps's reputation as a poet and as the beloved "shaman" of a rural Rhodesian native community, Sheers recounts his life of self-imposed exile through intercut time frames, imagined points of view and fragments of documentary evidence. Charting Cripps's life from his 1901 arrival in central Mashonaland to his death there in 1952, the author convincingly delineates a portrait of an ascetic subversive, more sympathetic to native custom than to white colonial rule. Sheers effectively conveys the white community's disapproval of Cripps's belief in African land rights and independence, although he does not explore a wider political context for Cripps's colonial critique. As for the contemporary sections of his book, while Sheers's account of his travels in the footsteps of his ancestor provides an informative update on postcolonial Zimbabwe, such journalistic impulses are sacrificed to anticlimactic pursuit of witnesses to Cripps's past. Sheers narrows his focus to a quirky family figure whom he can only distantly imagine, rather than undertaking a fuller historical journey. Obsessing over a rumor of a lost love in Cripps's past, he closes the book on the disappointingly clichéd note of a secret unlocked. Still, if Sheers fails to allow for full imaginative transport to the world he describes, he diligently accumulates absorbing and authentic visual and factual details that will be of value to those interested in Britain's former African colonies. (Mar. 25)

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