Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
At Play in the Fields of the Lord has the plot elements of stereotypical nineteenth century colonial novels and twentieth century Hollywood adventure films. The discovery of a savage Indian tribe, living in a remote and dangerous jungle, brings a handful of whites to a decrepit town on the edge of terra incognita. An ambitious and ruthless military commander competes with ne’er-do-well mercenaries and intrepid missionaries to establish first contact with the savages. All must battle the elements—oppressive heat and an unhealthy jungle—as well as resist the temptations of drink, which relieves boredom, and of forbidden passion, which eases loneliness.
The novel is not, however, a typical adventure tale. Matthiessen employs these romantic elements only to invert them. The Indians of this novel, the Niaruna, may be primitive by modern standards, but they are not savage, especially in comparison with the whites who would bring them “civilization.” The outcome of the adventure will not be typical: These whites will discover, not some lost treasure, forgotten city, or secret of life, but the dark reality of their own hearts. One fortunate intruder will discover a small light amid the darkness.
Matthiessen constructs the tale around two contrasting protagonists, Martin Quarrier and Lewis Moon. Quarrier is a missionary, Moon a mercenary soldier. Quarrier is a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, Moon a Cheyenne Indian. Quarrier comes to Oriente to propagate the Gospel, Moon to bomb the inhabitants into submission. Though they start the novel with opposite intentions, the plot leads them to one moment of common purpose and understanding before they discover their destinies.
The first half of the novel prepares the protagonists to meet the Niaruna. When Quarrier arrives at the capital city of Madre de Dios, he is anxious to begin his missionary work. He seems well...
(The entire section is 784 words.)