Book Review: Dead Man in Paradise

On June 22, 1965, in Monte Plata, a small town in the Dominican Republic, Art MacKinnon was shot to death. Art was a young Catholic priest from Canada and during his five years in the Dominican Republic, he had made many friends. "He was a padre in the church and an hombre in the street," one of those friends tells Art's nephew. Retracing his uncle's steps, J.B. MacKinnon has come to answer questions that have haunted the MacKinnon family for 40 years.

MacKinnon's reasons for visiting the Dominican Republic are clearly different from those of his uncle, but he finds they shared many similarities: innocence, obliviousness to local politics, ignorance of cultural differences and physical appearance. More than once MacKinnon meets people who knew his uncle and the first words out of their mouths are, "You look just like Padre Art." Their differences are pronounced, though: Padre Art was dedicated to social justice and change--a dangerous pursuit in the Dominican Republic in 1965; in search of cold, hard facts, MacKinnon is more interested meeting and questioning people, not changing their social conditions.
MacKinnon may have deluded himself into thinking that his trip is a simple fact-finding mission, including digging into old newspapers and asking cut-and-dried questions of garrulous old witnesses. But one interviewee is quick to acquaint him with Dominican reality, saying, "In this country, a hard, narrow search will go nowhere. The truth doesn't travel a straight line. It travels the way of the serpent."  

As he crisscrosses the island following leads on people who may be dead or alive (depending on who's talking) in towns that may or may not be the right one, or merely another one with the same name, MacKinnon lives that Dominican reality. Luckily for us, he has come equipped with the narrative chops to put us right there alongside him on his hair-raising misadventures. Slowly, slowly, he does learn about the territory and its ways. One of his first self-taught lessons is that the "gossip of the city inevitably makes its way to the place with the sweetest pineapples, the most delicious mangoes." Before he is finally ready to adopt the locals' wary and wily methods that will help him solve the mystery of his uncle's death, he also shows us he has taken the advice of his wise friend Yanira. She told him, "There's something you need to learn in this city. You need to learn to relax." As he at last pieces together the Who, How and Why surrounding the death, he succeeds, among other things, in learning to relax. In the process, he also has brought us this tale of an adventure growing out of a mystery, a glorious trip for armchair travelers and students of Caribbean politics alike.--John McFarland
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