The Last Heathen, by Charles Montgomery

Douglas & McIntyre, 314 pp, $24.95, softcover.

Our ancestors speak through us every day, whether we know it or not. Perhaps we've heard inspiring tales of their daring adventures in war or in sport, or cautionary fables of bankruptcy and horse-thieving. Perhaps their legacy manifests in the form of property or stocks--or male-pattern baldness, flat feet, and heart disease. Whatever's the case, we can't escape where we've come from.

Charles Montgomery knows that well. The Vancouver writer (and occasional Straight contributor) can trace his own ancestry back more than a thousand years, to one Biorn Dansk, a Viking warlord whose great-great-grandson, Roger de Montgomery, stood at William the Conqueror's side during the Norman invasion of England in 1066. Since then, the Montgomery line has produced a steady stream of warriors and churchmen, including the Right Rev. Henry Hutchinson Montgomery, Bishop of Tasmania, Anglican missionary to the bare-breasted, penis-sheathed heathens of Melanesia, and Charles Montgomery's great-grandfather.

Of course, the Melanesians weren't heathens at all, but subscribers to their own elaborate cosmology, in which sacred rocks could cause earthquakes and storms, sharks and octopi housed the spirits of one's ancestors, and a sorcerer's gaze could kill. The two faiths were seemingly incompatible, and for most of the 20th century it seemed that the missionaries had won: Melanesians swathed themselves in muumuus, jockey shorts, and Christian doctrine.

But, as Charles Montgomery discovered while attempting to retrace the right reverend's path, ancestral memory dies hard. Just as his own inherited bravado leads him into quaffing endless cups of muddy-tasting kava, crossing treacherous waters in leaky canoes, braving recurrent bouts of malaria, and risking the wrath of an ancient snake god, the Melanesians are now in the process of integrating their ancient kastom traditions with the true Christian spirit of self-sacrifice.

At first, it's all a bit much for our Vancouver colleague to take. In truth, he's the "last heathen" of his book's title: a rational sceptic, he's inclined to treat shamanic transfigurations and the doctrine of transubstantiation as different manifestations of the same mumbo jumbo. But as his Melanesian experience deepens, Montgomery begins to see things reason can't explain: a tribal "shark boss" sitting on the ocean floor, attended by his toothy, piscine familiar; a shy tasiu priest calming gun-toting bandits through quiet prayer.

In the end, Montgomery is the one converted--if not to Jesus, then at least to the notion that there are things in this world that are greater than the here and now, greater than the alienated, industrialized individual. The Last Heathen is his first testament, but it's likely there will be more: in a delicious reversal of fate, the man whose ancestor brought European values to the South Pacific may have found his life's work in bringing Melanesian lore to the West.