Author Tags: Environment, Travel

J.B. MacKinnon was a two-time winner of the National Magazine Foundation Gold Award for travel writing before he published his first book, Dead Man in Paradise (Douglas & McIntyre, 2005), a memoir of travelling to the Dominican Republic to investigate the suspicious murder of an uncle he never knew, Canadian Catholic priest Arturo MacKinnon, who was shot by a soldier in 1965. It received the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction and was shortlisted for The Pearson Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize in 2006 and the second annual British Columbia Award for Canadian Non-Fiction in 2006.

With his partner and co-writer Alisa Smith, J.B. MacKinnon co-authored the trendy but not exactly gripping account of their year-long attempt to eat only foods grown and produced within a 100-mile radius of their Vancouver apartment. The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating (Random House 2007) received the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize and led to another much-noticed release.

MacKinnon vaulted higher into the upper-echelon on B.C. non-fiction writers with The Once and Future World (Random House 2013), one of five titles shortlisted for British Columbia’s National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction in 2014.


Dead Man in Paradise (Douglas & McIntyre, 2005)

The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating (Random House 2007).

The Once and Future World (Random House 2013) 978-0-307-36218-6, $29.95

[BCBW 2014] "Travel" "Environment"

Dead Man in Paradise by J.B. MacKinnon (D&M $22.95)

In June 1965, after U.S. Marines helped to quash a popular revolt against a military junta in the Dominican Republic, J.B. MacKinnon’s uncle Arthur MacKinnon, a Catholic missionary known as “Padre Arturo,” was found shot to death in the village of Monte Plata along with the bodies of two policemen.

Those who inspected the Canadian priest’s body described an arc of bullet wounds, probably from a machine-gun, below his thorax, and what appeared to be a single pistol shot at the rear of his jaw. A young soldier claimed to have shot all three in the course of a gun battle. Some 40 years later, as a young journalist from Vancouver, J.B. MacKinnon went to the Dominican Republic to investigate his uncle’s death. The result, Dead Man in Paradise, has earned the 2006 Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction.

Dead Man in Paradise has been described as a murder mystery, political thriller, and travelogue—qualities it shares with the best fiction of Graham Greene who once said of a doomed protagonist that he “entered the territory of lies without a passport for return.” Although Greene’s novel about Caribbean corruption and brutality, The Comedians, was set in the other half of Hispaniola, in Haiti, it’s fair to say both MacKinnons entered much the same territory when they reached the Dominican Republic. Of course we know which of the MacKinnons returned, but there is palpable tension in his dual narratives as he shifts back and forth between a first-person account of his quest for truth and a reconstruction of his uncle’s final days.

At the outset, MacKinnon has trouble explaining exactly why he felt compelled to trace the final steps of a relative who died before he was born. His insistence at the conclusion that “I am too late for his church, but I have, at least, come closer to his faith” is not entirely convincing. No matter; it’s not about MacKinnon. Though he is necessarily omnipresent in the contemporary side of the story, he is an unassuming narrator, observant and generous in attention to the Dominicans, friend and foe alike. As one would expect from an award-winning travel writer, MacKinnon also offers sharply drawn impressions of the land itself, from city to swamp to mountain to beach. Early on there are a few clunky, overwrought passages, such as one in which he steps from a bus into “the fire that consumes heaven and earth from the moment the sun shoulders over the horizon.”

But he finds his footing: “From the churning belly of the old city I climb the hill to the lawns of the National Palace, the pink dome washed with sunlight like a shell thrown into the sky. Within a few blocks the city slumps back toward decay, its sidewalks jumbled and broken, the gutters piled with plastic and paper, funerary mounds of lime heaped over the road-killed dogs. At the edge of a plaza of dying trees, encoiled in an inner-city freeway, I stand once again in front of the offices recommended to me by General Brea Garó. Somewhere inside, someone knows exactly where and how to find José Ernesto Cruz Brea, but the building is a monument to hopelessness.”

Inside he meets yet another unhelpful bureaucrat who “has forgotten how to smile.” The generals he meets, on the other hand, remember how to smile—and little else. “I do not remember the unfortunate things. I prefer to remember the good,” General Cruz Brea tells MacKinnon, as he tinkers with a model of Sir Francis Drake’s ship, the Golden Hind, and rhapsodizes over his favourite novel, Les Misérables. This from a man widely believed to have orchestrated army purges, assassinations and cover-ups. It’s a tribute to MacKinnon’s storytelling skills that his part of the story, largely a litany of stonewalling, evasions and missed connections, moves as briskly as his flashbacks to Padre Arturo’s murder.

MacKinnon also conveys the air of intrigue and paranoia that still pervades even sleepy villages, where one doesn’t know who might be a leftist, who might be an agent of landowners, who might be the son or daughter of someone who killed one’s father or mother. One quibble: Given the recent fuss over fictive “memoirs” by James Frey and others, it’s hard not to raise an eyebrow at the high dose of direct quotation in Dead Man. In his notes and acknowledgments, MacKinnon says the reconstructions of his uncle’s last days are all based on “documentation or recollections.” Fair enough, but what of his own conversations? MacKinnon admits his Spanish is less than fluent, but insists all interviews were recorded and vetted by native Spanish-speakers. Perhaps he used a hidden microphone; it’s hard to imagine that some of the generals who dodged interviews for weeks would open up in the presence of a tape recorder.

There is some comic relief in Dead Man in the form of dubious characters such as “Charlie,” a seemingly helpful character MacKinnon meets at police headquarters. He arranges a rendezvous at a computer centre to hack information about a police officer who investigated the killings—only to announce that he doesn’t have the password. Charlie might be a fool, a spy or, as one of MacKinnon’s friends warns, both. On more than one occasion MacKinnon is tripped up by names. Is it General Fernandez-Hernandez or General Hernandez-Fernandez? Searching for anyone related to the soldier who supposedly confessed to the killings, he is directed to three towns called La Cuaba. There is a map at the front of the book and a chronology at the back, but with so many characters, so many names and places, an index would have been helpful. Without giving away too much, it’s fair to say MacKinnon doesn’t tie up every loose end of his uncle’s death, but he learns more about the priest’s calling and his own beliefs (or non-belief). Along the way there are insights into vengeance and forgiveness, the passions and patience of the poor and the ease with which some men can lie to themselves.

MacKinnon also delivers a potted history of the Dominican Republic, its three decades in the grip of Rafael Trujillo, the turmoil that followed his assassination and the invasion ordered by U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, down to Johnson’s dismissal of the Organization of American States as an entity that “couldn’t pour piss out of a boot if the instructions were written on the heel.”
A generation earlier, Franklin Roosevelt, the most liberal U.S. president of the 20th century, had supposedly defended his support for Trujillo by remarking, “He’s an SOB, but he’s our SOB.” 1-55365-138-3

--article by Shane McCune, a freelance journalist on the Sunshine Coast.

[BCBW 2006]