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The Solemn Lantern Maker, by Merlinda Bobbs.

November 14, 2013

The Solemn Lantern Maker, by Merlinda Bobbs.  New York : Delta Trade Paperbacks, 2009.



 A compelling story about a mute boy in the slums of Manila, the American woman he tries to rescue, and the furor caused by her disappearance.

 Noland lived with his crippled mother in a tiny hut in the Manila slums.  Mute, he made his own world there, filling their home with salvaged stars and angels.  He makes traditional paper lanterns which, with the help of a friend, he sells.  In the bright and chaotic days just before Christmas, he and his friend witness a Pilipino journalist shot.  A white American woman, who looks like an angel to Noland, also falls bleeding to the ground. Noland immediately decides he must take care of her.  He bundles her into his cart and takes her to his mother’s hut where she remains unconscious for several days.  Local officials and US military personal panic, assuming that she has been kidnapped by terrorists, maybe by a religious cult.  The fact that the story takes place in the midst of Christmas festivities provides irony, but not a happy, miraculous ending.

 The Solemn Lantern Maker is an early book by Bobbs, who is justly better known for her lyrical, imaginative The Fish-Hair Woman.  This book is a simpler tale, more conventionally told, but like her recent novel, it circles around a diverse group of characters who bring their varied perceptions to events.  Both books deal with the lives of those most powerless as well as with the international political actions that threaten their lives.  Both books also give evidence of Bobbs’ sensitivity and the sheer beauty of her writing.

 Merlinda Bobbs grew up in the Philippines and later moved to Australia. She feels strongly about the injustice done to her native land by Spanish colonizers, American domination, and by local people who have profited by doing their will.  This story lays bare the ridiculous misconceptions on which US policy is based.  The woman whom Noland brings home and the military official who is supposed to find her are not villains, however.  They are ambivalent figures, the man even questioning the policies he is supposed to enforce.

I recommend this book to readers who are interested in the Philippines, the global slums, and in current conditions in our globalized world.  It has some of the same charm of the non-fictional account of life in the slums of Mumbai as Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo.  

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