He struggles through his life being misunderstood, depressed, weak, lonely and afraid. His devotion to his work was often a means to escape the dark feelings that haunted him. If we were his contemporaries, we would surely criticize him for being a workaholic and unable to appreciate the important things in life. The book was also not a captivating story, it was pretty dry and boring, at least saved by the controversial letters from Alfred to his mistress of twenty years. I trudged through (for the sake of the challenge, mostly), and ultimately I’m glad I did because it has made me think about a few things more deeply.
In our obsession with enjoying life to the fullest, traveling, exploring and staying connected, do we forget that there were men and women throughout history that had to invent these things that we so casually enjoy? When we travel with ease across countries and borders, do we stop to appreciate the millions of people that have done something to make that possible? Alfred Nobel’s dynamite gave a huge advantage to the travel industry by greatly reducing the time to construct railways. Can I condemn him for creating something so destructive while enjoying the obvious benefits of it?
I have often sat at airports, gazing out the window as the planes are taxied, bags are loaded and passengers accommodated. So many people have to work hard at their jobs day in and day out to make my choice of life possible. This goes for almost everything I enjoy - the food I eat, the clothes I wear and even the books that I read. With all of the social strife that is raging today, maybe we should all stop and think about how the people that we judge, accuse and hate, might play an integral role behind the scenes of our daily lives and the luxuries we enjoy. Are we contributing to the future or just enjoying the fruit of other people’s past labors?
I wonder what Alfred Nobel would have thought if he had lived to see the twentieth century, the most barbaric and deadly of all time. His last will and testament, which established the Nobel Peace Prize, was not just a last ditch attempt to make up for devoting his life to destruction. He actually had a keen desire for peace all of his life, and his greatest ambition was to create something so destructive and deadly that nations would be forced to live peacefully. As anti-social as he was, he had a deep concern for world peace that we would do well to emulate, first and foremost in our daily interactions with one another.
Even though it was not set in Cameroon, I appreciated the peak into the Cameroonian culture, via the family life, food references, and the characters' reminiscing of their hometown and childhoods. One big cultural dynamic that was highlighted in the story was the relationship between the Cameroonian husband and wife. The main characters had an intense loyalty to one another and took their roles in marriage seriously. The husband was willing to make difficult decisions that he thought were best for the wife, even when he knew it would make her mad. He was willing to go to great lengths to supply for and protect his family. The wife was committed to standing by her man and did so by submitting to decisions she didn't like and forgiving both verbal and physical abuse. I thought it was brave of the author to present this aspect of her own culture, especially to a western audience that might be really put off by it. She highlights this through several characters in the book, other than just Jende and Neni, which made me think she was portraying the normality of it in her culture.
I thought the core theme of the book was "Is the 'American Dream' worth it?" A lot of people around the world believe that America is the promised land of success and happiness. Jende and Neni are willing to pursue that dream at almost any cost because of the lack of opportunity in their own country and their desire to impress everyone back home. Their wealthy employers, the Edwardses, appear to have everything, but are still zealously pursing the same dream at a much higher cost. The ending of the story for everyone is both tragic and hopeful.
I hope the author, who is herself an immigrant from Cameroon to New York City, continues to write from her cultural background and experiences. It is such a helpful way for us to get insight that we normally wouldn't have and to be able to relate with people who are different than us. I would recommend the book to anyone who is looking for something that will both entertain and enlighten you.
Luke and I are married and have four little munchkins that travel the world with us. I blog about living overseas, travel, kids, education and graphic design.
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