At Play in the Fields of the Lord, set in the jungles of South America, has received much critical recognition. An aboriginal tribe of Amazonian Indians—the Niaruna—lives so far up the headwaters of the Amazon that they have never seen “modern” men, except the anthropologist who has been there to observe them. Once discovered, however, they become the focus of a number of groups’ attempts to bring civilization to them. The Niaruna will never be the same after foreigners come on the scene, but neither will the Americans who go there. This novel expresses Matthiessen’s central concern with the negative impact that modern technology has, not only on the less “advanced” cultures on which it encroaches but also on the people who take their own advantages for granted. The book also describes the tension that arises when the innocent “savages” are confronted by an essentially corrupt civilization—in this case, Catholic and Baptist missionaries and two American mercenaries.
The Niaruna are causing problems for the governor of their state; although they usually live peacefully in their remote villages, they occasionally cause trouble for the civilized South American Indians who are their neighbors. The prefect of Oriente State wants them “pacified” by whatever means is effective. Although he personally favors bombing the Niaruna and driving them across his country’s borders, he cannot afford a scandal. Because he holds two American soldiers of fortune as detainees (Wolfie and Moon), he coerces them into taking the job.
Not only does At Play in the Fields of the Lord show readers what can happen to the Indians once...
(The entire section is 686 words.)