Review: The Dust Diaries

Review: The Dust Diaries

One of the dilemmas of holidays is what books to take.

Yes, I know this is what has converted many of you to e-readers. “Take all of them!” you say. But while that does help with the baggage allowance, it also just postpones the decision until later. At some point, you’re still going to have to choose.

I took three books with me on my holiday this year – sufficient to cover all my needs, but not an excessive burden in the suitcase. One was a Christian novel – light and undemanding; one was Ben Fogle’s autobiography – which I must read and return to its owner; the other was The Dust Diaries, by Owen Sheers.

No prizes for guessing which I read!

My friend spotted it on my Amazon Wish List ages ago, when I had fallen in love with the author’s writing through his verse drama Pink Mist and novel Resistance (you can see my reviews of those books here and here respectively). She sent it to me, and it has been sitting on my ‘to read’ pile ever since.

I’ve picked it up a couple of times, and though the subject matter sounded intriguing – an imaginative biography of Sheers’ great uncle, Arthur Cripps, described as a “lyric poet and maverick missionary to Southern Rhodesia” – the typeface was small and dense, and always seemed just a little intimidating.

Its cover is beautiful, though (another reason why the e-reader thing hasn’t won me over – I get a lot out of the look and feel of books, rather than just the flat words), and I was heading to Africa, so it seemed appropriate to read a book set in the right continent. (Ben Fogle’s, conversely, pictured him in some arctic waste, which would have felt somewhat incongruous in the 40+ degree heat!)

I’m so glad I did.

Fact and imagination

Owen’s writing is so fluid and his story so compelling that I discovered I had raced through sixty-odd pages while snaking my way slowly forward in the queue at immigration. The book is an unusual blend of genuine letters, factual occurrences and imagined episodes. Its structure is clear enough, however, to be able to decipher the fact from the imaginative colour.

Arthur Shearly Cripps was born in 1869. He was a poet, with a particular fondness for Keats, and a Christian. In 1901 he boarded a ship bound for Southern Rhodesia, where he intended to join in the mission work of the Church of England. He did indeed work alongside the church at first, but quickly found himself at odd with many of their methods and particularly their acceptance of the colonialist line which sought to dominate the native inhabitants of the land, conscript them as labourers and steal their birthright.

Sheers, who isn’t a Christian, found the contradiction confusing at first – Cripps had gone to take the Christian faith but not the white, Western outworking of it? How could that be? As he learned more and more about his relative, through letters, biographies and eventually meetings with people who had known and loved him, however, Sheers came to understand and, it seems, approve.

The black Christ

Faith in the God of the Bible does not require adherence to the forms and practices which the West has constructed around the text. A church does not have to be built of stone, formed in the shape of a cross and filled with fonts, statuary and elaborate crucifixes in order to be a holy sanctuary, acceptable for the worship of the Lord. In fact, as one episode from the 1930s shows, it doesn’t have to be built at all: after an incident in which four of  ‘Baba Cripps’s’ churches were burned to the ground, the region’s Bishop, Edward Paget, accompanied Cripps to his regular services at each of the locations. Sheers imagines the scene as Paget watches:

Cripps preached from the blackened altar stones, his old boots dusted grey with the ash of burnt thatch and wood. The African congregations gathered around the old priest, intent on his sermons and singing out the Shona hymns with an energy that Paget had never witnessed in his own services in Salisbury. He watched Cripps preach and could not help but feel that these shattered mission stations, open to the veld, were perhaps the most suitable churches of all for this maverick priest. Here, there was no partition between the church and the land, no entrances, no windows, the birds flew above them and the wind moved through them. And, Paget noticed more than once, the crucified Christs behind the altars, having passed through [the] flames, were coloured a deep, charred black.

The significance of this last sentence is that Cripps had often argued that one of the barriers to the Africans coming to faith was that the white missionaries preached about a white Christ. They may not have specifically mentioned his skin colour, but they had cast him in their image, imagining him with their kinds of characteristics and concerns, their priorities and their preferences. They had failed to contextualise their message, failed to sift out the facts from the forms, and in doing so had, deliberately or unwittingly, kept the black Africans at arms length from God. Cripps’ success, and the reason he was so deeply loved by his parishioners, was that he introduced them to the true and living God, who knew and understood their circumstances, who cared about what they cared about, and who died that they too might enter his kingdom, in which there is no longer black nor white, slave nor free.

A feast of fact and fictionalisation

The Dust Diaries is both a fascinating personal story and a helpful insight into the terrible, tragic history of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, a history carved predominantly by arrogant, blind, racist colonialists who sowed in the dusty soil the seeds which were already in violent bloom by the time Sheers came to write his relative’s story, just a century later.

I’m glad I finally overcame the intimidation of the density of the text; it’s a brilliant book, well crafted and beautifully written. The pages slipped by as quickly as those of a much lighter novel, but leaving the satisfaction of a nourishing meal.

I highly recommend it.

My rating: 5/5

7 Comments On This Topic
  1. Ann
    on Aug 27th at 9:55 am

    Excellent review, leaves you wanting to red thebook

    • Jennie Pollock
      on Aug 27th at 10:19 am

      Oh good. Thank you! You can borrow it sometime. 🙂

  2. Wendy Phillips
    on Sep 2nd at 12:15 pm

    Thanks very much for this post, Jennie. Zimbabwe is a big part of our lives since living there 1998-99. Ordered a used copy on Amazon the day i read this – it arrived this morning!

    • Jennie Pollock
      on Sep 2nd at 10:54 pm

      Great, thanks Wendy. I’d love to hear what you think of the book when you’re done.

      • Wendy Phillips
        on Sep 11th at 9:27 am

        In one sentence? He gets Zimbabwe! (=high praise!!). LOVED it. A beautiful man who turned his suffering into something gloriously good.

        • Jennie Pollock
          on Sep 11th at 9:49 am

          Wow, that is high praise! I’m so glad you liked it.

  3. Deeper
    on Jan 1st at 8:06 am

    […] biography and an eye-opening insight into the life of a Zimbabwean missionary (I reviewed it here if you want to know more), and Matt Haig’s The Humans was probably my favourite novel, in a […]


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