Review: Swimming in the Congo by Margaret Myers
Swimming in the Congo is one of the best books I have read in a long time and it is likely to remain a favorite for me. When I was growing up, my parents told us many stories about their missionary years in Africa (1925 to 1932). If they or any other people were swimming in the Congo River, they never mentioned it. So, I was spared another regret that I had not been born in Africa like my brothers and sister and experienced the adventures of living there. Though I did not have the opportunity to swim in the Congo River, I did have the childhood joys of swimming in the Big Fork River, Rainy Lake, Lake Kabetogama, Lake Namakan, and best of all, Rainy River at City Dock in International Falls, Minnesota. Had I known, however, that missionary kids like Grace, the heroine of the book, were actually swimming in the Congo River, my childhood would have been considerably more difficult.
Reading about Grace is almost as good as a childhood in Africa. As she describes her adventures, she cuts beneath missionary and Western stereotypes to reveal levels of interaction that only children can achieve. On one level, the book is pure fun, in spite of some sad events. On another level, it is about a person, a young girl, in the process of development in the midst of deep and varied cultural, religious, and social currents. At this level, it seems that "swimming in the Congo" is also a metaphor for growing up in the stream of a mix of these strong cultural, religious, and social currents.
In one story, "Foolish Virgins," Grace tells about the evangelistic visit of the Reverend Hadley Wilson at her missionary boarding school. As Grace and her forth-grade friend Carrie got dressed for Reverend Wilson's first service, Carrie asked: "How many times have you been saved, Grace?" The answer was eleven. "'Is that all?' Carrie tossed her head with an air of virtuous suffering. 'I've been saved twenty-four times.' "
Reverend Wilson preached about the evil Madame Potiphar: "A bared leg may tempt even a godly man to lust.... No Christian female wants that on her conscience." Grace glanced down at her pink petunia dress and drew the skirt over her skinned knees. Carrie tugged at the hem of her skirt and "yanked [it] down as far as it would go, then pinned it in place with the heavy green hymnal" (pp. 87, 88).
Each chapter is a fine, fresh story. There is a surprising discovery in "Miss Adela's Garden" and a very sad ending to "Bofio." In "Sea of Iniquity" we are plunged into the cultic mysteries of two cultures and Grace risks her soul for her father's health.
The stories take place just before and at the time of independence. Margaret Meyers tells them as a child would, and she never abandons that viewing point. When I read it again, I hope it will be aloud to a young girl or boy.