Monday, February 24, 2014

Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History

Eduardo Galeano’s Children of the Days is indeed a calendar - each page presents a day of the year, with a historical story somehow associated with that day.  He tells stories about people, places, and events that in most cases have some connection with the day they appear on.  Some vignettes will be well known, but many document unsung ordinary people who have championed a cause, and in many cases suffered and died for it.  The book features many happenings from Latin America - an area that does not receive a lot of international media coverage - and so it is a very interesting way to experience historical events.  Rather than delving into extensive historical detail on a central topic, Galeano gives us a collage of disparate events.  In reading this book, I found myself choosing to read one month per day.  When I would put the book down after each sitting and reflect upon my reading, the distinct events start to weave together and form patterns.

As one progresses through this book, overall themes start to present themselves - ordinary people, often indigenous peoples, fighting for human rights and freedoms from government and corporate oppression.  Freedom to live in traditional lifestyles, freedom from environmental degradation, and defence of democratic principles in the face of military dictatorships and foreign influence.  Galeano celebrates human achievement and creativity, and the pursuit of peace and environmental harmony.  He is strongly critical of corporate greed and its profit-driven expedient decision-making, and is clearly critical of the dubious motives of war and the military (as it manifests in any country).  The clearest and succinctest example of this is by simply referring to the U.S. Department of Defense as the “Department of War.”

Each story is fascinating, and in many cases horrifying.  But every once in a while, a story has a happy ending, and faith in humanity can be somewhat restored.  The stories are quite short - each is no more than a page, but many are short paragraphs.  Many are told in almost poetic form.  I have reproduced a passage below, which to me is a representative sample of what this book is like to read:       
April 24
The Perils of Publishing
In the year 2004, for once the government of Guatemala broke with tradition of impunity and officially acknowledged that Myrna Mack was killed by order of the country’s president.
Myrna had undertaken forbidden research. Despite receiving threats, she had gone deep into the jungles and mountains to find exiles wandering in their own country, the indigenous survivors of the military’s massacres. She collected their voices.
In 1989, at a conference of social scientists, an anthropologist from the United States complained about the pressure universities exert to continually produce: “In my country if you don’t publish, you perish.”
And Myrna replied: “In my country if you publish, you perish.”
She published.
She was stabbed to death.

Discussion Questions
  1. Describe the tone of Children of the Days.  
  2. Does this book change how you view human history?
  3. What was your favourite “day” presented in this book?
  4. How many of the people/events were familiar to you?
  5. Galeano does not provide “textbook” summations of historical events. What is the effect of his portrayals?  
  6. How would you describe his writing style?
  7. Did you ever feel intrigued enough about a story to conduct further research?
  8. Sometimes the link between a story and the date it appears on is not obvious (and may not be stated at all). We can also assume that Galeano to some degree manipulated the flow of stories throughout the book. How well does the subject matter integrate into the calendar idea? How does each story flow into the next?
  9. What are some major themes that Galeano is particularly concerned about?
  10. Can you think of an “unsung” hero who could have been added to this book?

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