Review of The Plateau

The Plateau

The Plateau by Maggie Paxson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“With all of our chances– and all of the moral tools we’ve derived from any number of spiritual, religious, and philosophical orientations– we haven’t learned. It’s like we still don’t even recognize the moral hazard of deciding we are anything– any nation, any race, any religion, any gender– before we are a human being. Even when we must know, in our deepest places, that the oneness of humanity is an absolute truth, we behave as though we don’t” (309).

Anthropologist Maggie Paxson has written a book unlike any I have read before: an exploration of peace that is part anthropology, part memoir, part history, part religious meditation. She begins by asking what made the people of the Plateau region of France, a place known for harboring refugees and Jews in great times of danger, do so? In the course of finding her answer, she lives on the Plateau, studies the history of Daniel Trocme who lived there briefly during WWII to harbor and teach refugee children, and befriends the newest refugees in the area. All of this sidetracks her from getting down to the nitty-gritty data of why this area is so special. Instead she veers into an exploration of humanity, religions, and nations to determine what makes one good and put their life on the line for another. I am personally okay not having charts and diagrams and boxes with numbers in them to map the bell curve of goodness. Goodness is subjective, caught in the mess of our psyches.

Paxson’s goal is ambitious. How DOES one chart peace? Especially during a time when there was no peace? Also, how does one study a population’s motives for helping others when not all members shared the same goal? There are so many stories of sacrifice made by people all over Europe who helped shelter and feed and welcome into their homes Jews and other displaced peoples that I don’t think the answer lies in one area. It lies in ourselves. Paxson gets drawn into the lives of those in the past and the families seeking shelter on the Plateau now. She learns who they are and what caused them to flee their homelands. She explores how religions and the ideas of nations (which replaced kingdoms which served religions) have failed humanity. Deeply religious herself, in a secular field, she questions how religions can lead one astray– especially when every religion intones that we must love one another. Not being religious myself, I found this interesting as she discusses how the “why” one is religious impacts how much they love their neighbor and how they can use that same religion to shun him. Those who strive for peace, place humanity front and center– just because somebody else made them an enemy because they are of a different race, religion, political persuasion– doesn’t make them your enemy, too. When the time comes to act, who will we be? Will answer the call as whatever we label ourselves– white? Christian? American? Or will we be humans responding to human needs?

There is a tremendous amount of pain in this book. I learned more about the Holocaust that I had not known before; I learned about the atrocities happening in other countries; I learned about how much pain and death and suffering arise from ultimately arbitrary means. I again learned that being good will not save you, and it instead makes you a bigger target. Their is a lot hope here, too. We can in our small and big ways help others and do what we can. This seems miniscule in light of the horrors of the world, but think of the amount of good and how many people are saved when we act selflessly. In the words of Jesus, “Ye shall know them by their fruits,” and Paxson reminds us that it is not who we say we are that defines us, but what we do.

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Want Some Funny? Meet Bob Tarte.

Image via Goodreads.

In today’s comedy climate that often involves poo, projectile vomit, semen, and decapitation, or comics who are mean and immediately go for the jugular, it’s refreshing to find a humorist who does not appeal to his audience’s basest nature.

Meet Bob Tarte, author of Enslaved By DucksFowl Weather, and the soon-to-be-released Kitty Cornered, who writes books that are just plain funny.  I first became acquainted with Tarte’s work while cruising Amazon’s recommendations.  I saw Enslaved By Ducks, and being a (rubber) duck lover, I checked it out, but thought it looked a bit hokey– until I noticed that 216 people gave it a five star review.  Three seconds later with the help of my “Buy With One Click” button (the equivalent of having cocaine in a nasal spray bottle), I had made my purchase.

Tarte’s memoir of moving out into the Michigan countryside with his wife for some peace and quiet only for it to be destroyed by a growing coterie of bunnies, birds, ducks, geese, and turkeys does not disappoint.   He grapples with how ill-suited for country life he is as he builds pens and cages for animals who have their own agendas and do not peacefully co-exist unless they are separated by wire mesh.  He takes his reader along on his journey of trying Zoloft to ease his anxiety as he is befuddled and bewildered by what animals can do each other and him (their favorite target).  His descriptions of his animals and their personalities are well-drawn as he shows how they transformed a man who never had pets into one who tenderly cares for a goose with a respiratory illness.  His descriptions of people are equally funny as he meets a variety of vets and well-meaning strangers who give him all qualities of advice.  If you’ve ever found yourself singing to an animal, then this book is for you.

I enjoyed Enslaved By Ducks so much that I promptly hit my One-Click button for Fowl Weather.  I wanted to stay in his world of country life, crazy neighbors, and cunning animals.  This follow-up book continues his account of being ruled by his pets, but the fowl in the title is intentional wordplay.  Life goes on and it’s not always funny.  Animals and people get old and deal with illness.  His mother slowly succumbs to Alzheimer’s and he realizes his own limitations in helping her. Tarte describes this part of life with warmth and humility and always with humor.  This is what I appreciate about his writing; it’s open, honest, and lacks pretension.

Bob Tarte’s books are genuinely funny and he never goes for the cheap gags or cutting remarks.  I highly recommend them.