Elevate Difference

The White Mary

Marika Vicera is a war reporter who has dedicated herself to telling the stories of oppressed peoples around the world. She is giving a talk at Boston University when she meets a psychology doctoral student named Sebastian Gilman. Seb, as he is known, is in awe of Marika's war reports, which have landed frequently on the covers of major newspapers. Although Marika doesn't think much of the practice of psychology, she is taken with Seb. Marika takes a break from her globe trotting to write a biography of famous journalist Robert Lewis, who recently committed suicide. At the same time, she begins dating Seb, and, eventually, she moves in with him.

Soon, the memories of her near death in the Congo begin to haunt her. She feels the easy life she has in Cambridge is meaningless, and she begins to push Seb away. She refuses to let Seb use any of his psychology skills to help her. When she learns that Robert Lewis may be alive in Papua New Guinea, she uses that as an excuse to run from Seb and the intimacy that is so uncomfortable to her.

Marika has admired Lewis all of her life, and now she is driven to find out what really happened to him. She ends up alone in the “heat and humidity of New Guinea...covered in sweat, her clothes entirely soaked. She accidentally left the top of her tent unzipped, and engorged red mosquito bites cover her body like a series of reprimands: do not underestimate this world.”

There have been a couple of sightings of someone who resembles Lewis near Walwasi Mountain, a distant region. Marika hires a guide, who abandons her before they reach their destination. She recruits Tobo, a medicine man in the village where she is abandoned. He reluctantly agrees to take her, as he sees it as a spiritual obligation. The trip to Walwasi Mountain is harrowing: by the time they reach the village, Marika is near death. She is completely dependent on Tobo, who relies on magic and herbs to keep her alive.

Salak's descriptions of Papua New Guinea are vivid and brutal. The fact that Salak herself actually did walk across the country as a reporter lends credence to the world she creates on the page. Salak describes Krit, a village they pass on the way to Walwasi Mountain that seems to have been cursed, and unflinchingly: “Marika sees a little girl with a distended belly relieving herself under one of the huts. Flies buzz over piles of feces scattered about the village, and a fetid stench wafts to her on the breeze.”

The White Mary is indeed a page turner, though at times the back story about Seb and even Robert Lewis seems to interrupt the Papua New Guinea narrative. The connection between the Marika of Papua New Guinea and the Marika back in the States was tenuous and might have been more carefully interwoven. Salak's examination of Seb's insights into psychology in relation to Marika's own psychological makeup could be a bit less heavy handed as well.

But Marika's journey, in the end, goes beyond a search for Robert Lewis. It becomes a search for her own soul, and her own sense of what really matters in life. Ultimately, Salak has crafted a rousing and ultimately satisfying adventure.

Written by: Natasha Bauman, December 7th 2009

Hi Lawrence,

Salak indeed deserves credit for her daring. And the book is well worth a read. I'm sure you'll enjoy it -- especially since you have lived in PNG. Thanks for your comment.


Thanks, Natasha, for your fine review. As someone who has lived and worked in Papua New Guinea for many years, I have to get the book, of course, but the funny thing is, I bought several copies of two of her books on-line, this one included, to give as presents to our daughters and to my step-mom, mostly on the strength of the abstracts and other reader reviews. Salak walked across the entire island of New Guinea (the western half has been since 1969 an Indonesian province), and you've got to give her credit for that! She's led an incredibly interesting life so far, and might prove to incite some wanderlust in our girls.

Thanks again for your great review.

Lawrence Hammar