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The Old Way


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About the Author

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction--among them The Hidden Life of Dogs, The Harmless People, Reindeer Moon, and The Animal Wife. She has written for The New Yorker, National Geographic, and The Atlantic. She lives in New Hampshire


In 1950, Thomas (The Hidden Life of Dogs), at 19, joined her civil engineer father, her ballerina mother (who would become a celebrated anthropologist) and her brother on a life-changing expedition into southwest Africa's Kalahari Desert to live among the Ju/wasi Bushmen. Less a rigorous anthropological study than a loving, nostalgic ode to a self-sustaining culture of hunter-gatherers, this book recounts their now extinct way of life. The Ju/wasi used ostrich eggs to hold more than a day's water supply to expand their foraging range, and burned dry grass to encourage the growth of green grass, thus attracting large antelopes and other prey. The Ju/wasi allowed polygamy and divorce, welcomed baby girls as much as baby boys and treated children with unfailing kindness, but practiced infanticide on children born to nursing mothers because, with their low-fat diet, they could produce enough milk for only one child. In recent decades, the Bushmen have been removed from their land and their way of life has been obliterated by modernity, racism, poverty, alcoholism and AIDS. Thomas offers readers a glimpse of how our prehistoric ancestors undoubtedly lived, worked, loved and played. Photos from the Marshall family album freeze the Ju/wasi in the happy 1950s. (Oct.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

In 1989, Thomas updated her classic The Harmless People (1959), about the southern African "San" or, previously, "Bushmen," with a chapter on their troubles under unsympathetic regimes and difficult times. Instead of writing another such chapter, Thomas has chosen to tell their story again, taking into account changes in anthropological theory. Her preface contains a meticulous discussion of the names applied to the people she now calls "Ju/wasi," which may be translated as something like "the first people." This is Thomas at her best: respectful of scholarship, traditions, and peoples. The first chapter, however, spins a parable about human evolution (a chain of mothers and daughters that leads back to a chimpanzee) that is too simplistic to be legitimate, and the chapters that follow read like outtakes from the first book: notes and observations for the 1950s. Only in the last three chapters does her vigor resume. She describes an emotional return visit and her outrage that the Ju/wasi are being forced to live in extreme privation by, ironically enough, idealists who believe that so-called Bushmen are incapable of agriculture or modern ways of life. Her defiance of cultural preservation echoes her challenge to racism 50 years ago. This book is essential for all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/06.] Lisa Klopfer, Eastern Michigan Univ. Lib., Ypsilanti Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

"Heartbreaking and gorgeously observed . . . The Old Way is not only a timely work, but also a timeless one." --Alexandra Fuller, The New York Times Book Review "A work of impressive scholarship and, more important, a book that connects the dots linking us to the first stages of the human race. . . . Remarkable." --The Washington Post "It is fascinating to see how Thomas has honed her observational powers over the years . . . and how her notion of 'culture' has broadened." --Los Angeles Times "Thomas captures the fascinating customs of a people that had no future as a tribe." --The Daily News (New York)

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