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A cautionary tale of globalization

Globalization, support 18%

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Thrity Umrigar is intrigued by how cultures blend. A native of India, Umrigar spent 17 years writing for newspapers like the Washington Post and the Akron Beacon Journal. She made the transition from journalist to novelist, writing books like the acclaimed “The Space Between Us.” Umrigar’s latest, “The Weight of Heaven,” reveals once more her talent on the rise. As “The Weight of Heaven” begins a young couple, Frank and Ellie Benton, are mourning the death of their 7-year-old son, Benny. Frank is employed by a small firm in Ann Arbor. He was out of the country on business when Benny died. Ellie is consumed by guilt. She wonders if there was anything that she might have done to save Benny’s life. Frank is angry. He blames Ellie. He cannot find it in his heart to forgive her. Their marriage is in turmoil. Everything about their lives in Michigan reminds them of their loss. Frank is offered a job running a factory his company owns in India. He jumps at the chance. The grieving parents move to a small village on the Indian coast.

This is where Umrigar’s storytelling kicks into top form. Frank’s company makes a drug that prevents diabetes. The drug is made from the leaves of trees that grow in the area of this village. Frank’s company “leased” all the trees in the forest. The natives are now prohibited from gathering the leaves. This village has never had a case of diabetes. Generations made their livelihoods by gathering the leaves. That ends with the arrival of Frank’s company. Frank’s factory provides employment for some. The majority of natives are angry the Americans are monopolizing the trees. In an interview Umrigar explained how she plotted this clash. She said that “they are not demonic men. These are decent men, good-natured men. They go into this strange, alien place with all the good intentions in the world. But what they don’t have is any real understanding of a different culture.” She continued: “I think that’s the difference between Ellie and Frank. Ellie comes to India with an open mind and takes it at face value without judgment ... Frank tries to impose his American values and his sense of morality, you know; the workers are too slow, that kind of thing — his work ethic if you will, onto a place that just has a different pace and values.”

Ellie embraces the people and their culture. Frank is baffled by it. He rejects it with one notable exception. Frank is obsessed with a young Indian boy. He schemes to take the youth away from a poor family to raise him as his surrogate son, a replacement for the lost Benny. Frank descends into madness. Ellie is the helpless bystander sucked into a nightmare her husband creates. Frank’s inability to forgive bears a steep price. Cultural shock ensues. Globalization’s cautionary impact spirals and sizzles throughout this superb novel.


5:37 PM Friday, May 8, 2009

By Vick Mickunas

source: www.daytondailynews.com


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