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The Harmless People (1959)

de Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

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280271,413 (3.9)3
"A study of primitive people which, for beauty of . . . style and concept, would be hard to match." --The New York Times Book Review In the 1950s Elizabeth Marshall Thomas became one of the first Westerners to live with the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert in Botswana and South-West Africa. Her account of these nomadic hunter-gatherers, whose way of life had remained unchanged for thousands of years, is a ground-breaking work of anthropology, remarkable not only for its scholarship but for its novelistic grasp of character. On the basis of field trips in the 1980s, Thomas has now updated her book to show what happened to the Bushmen as the tide of industrial civilization--with its flotsam of property rights, wage labor, and alcohol--swept over them. The result is a powerful, elegiac look at an endangered culture as well as a provocative critique of our own. "The charm of this book is that the author can so truly convey the strangeness of the desert life in which we perceive human traits as familiar as our own. . . . The Harmless People is a model of exposition: the style very simple and precise, perfectly suited to the neat, even fastidious activities of a people who must make their world out of next to nothing." --The Atlantic… (mais)
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An anthropologist's memoir of her experiences living with the Kung (!Kung) and Gikwe (Gǀwi) people of southern Africa.

The book is commendable for the respectful portrayal of the people the author encountered and lived with. Although the book takes the form of a personal travelogue, the author herself stays largely out of view, keeping the focus on the people she meets, their way of life, and the harsh yet beautiful landscape around them. Tragic events such as the kidnapping and enslavement of the people by European colonists, crippling injuries and deaths are described without excess sentiment, leaving the reader to form their own impressions. However, despite the dispassionate treatment of the subject matter, the book's tone is far from dry and academic. The narrative is enlivened by vibrant character sketches of the people the author meets, as well as lyrical descriptions of the landscape that serve to indirectly convey emotion and mood. This austere style of writing complements the book's subject, describing people who have managed to survive for thousands of years in extremely challenging natural conditions.

An excellent read for those interested in anthropology and ways of life different from our own. ( )
  gcthomas | May 3, 2021 |
Elizabeth Thomas put a lot of heart and soul into the writing of The Harmless People. Her research was not done from a cold, calculating, scientific perspective. From the very first pages one can feel the intensity of the respect she has for the lives and cultures Kalahari Bushmen. Thomas seems driven to convey a message more important than all the others about the reclusive tribes and that is they are gentle people. Harmless. Their tribal name for themselves is Zhu twa si, meaning the harmless people. There are many occasions for Thomas to illustrate this. In order to study each Kalahari tribe Thomas first had to find them which proved to be difficult because they had a tendency to run and hide at the first sign of stranger intrusion. Even after finding these people she (and her crew of scientists and researchers) had to convince them she wasn't there to create conflict or enslave them or steal from them. It took a great deal of time to gain their trust just so that Thomas could live among them. ( )
  SeriousGrace | Nov 5, 2010 |
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"A study of primitive people which, for beauty of . . . style and concept, would be hard to match." --The New York Times Book Review In the 1950s Elizabeth Marshall Thomas became one of the first Westerners to live with the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert in Botswana and South-West Africa. Her account of these nomadic hunter-gatherers, whose way of life had remained unchanged for thousands of years, is a ground-breaking work of anthropology, remarkable not only for its scholarship but for its novelistic grasp of character. On the basis of field trips in the 1980s, Thomas has now updated her book to show what happened to the Bushmen as the tide of industrial civilization--with its flotsam of property rights, wage labor, and alcohol--swept over them. The result is a powerful, elegiac look at an endangered culture as well as a provocative critique of our own. "The charm of this book is that the author can so truly convey the strangeness of the desert life in which we perceive human traits as familiar as our own. . . . The Harmless People is a model of exposition: the style very simple and precise, perfectly suited to the neat, even fastidious activities of a people who must make their world out of next to nothing." --The Atlantic

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