My Ishmael is even better than Ishmael.
The narrator is a twelve year old girl. She’s a stereotype, really: the only latchkey child of a single alcoholic workaholic mother. Daniel Quinn doesn’t bother to introduce her further, except to throw in a couple more cliches. I was pretty pissed about this, because his male characters get to be people, but this girl character has to be some two dimensional clichÃ©? Fuck that shit. I forgave him, partially, because he went on to solve all the angst I was having.
She answers the same ad as the first guy: â€œteacher seeks pupil. Must have a sincere desire to save the world.â€ At first, Ishmael tries to send her away. She’s too young. She tells him she’s old enough to get pregnant and do heroin, and, being a Gorilla quite inexperienced with pre-teen dramatics, Ishmael decides to teach her.
What does she need to learn, he asks. She tells him she had a vision that she would come here and be sent off to study people on other planets who knew how to live without killing their worlds. This is how Ishmael frames her teachings. He takes her to imaginary planets and tells her about how people live successfully there, and then he points out indigenous cultures and animal species that live exactly the same way.
I had been wondering about people. I had been wondering why we put up with so much crazy shit from each other, why we dive so gloriously into such small, socially constructed realities. I wondered why the friendships I made as a kid on the street were so real and intense, and why normal people always seem so superficial. I had an idea that we were meant to live in tribes, but I wasn’t really sure what that meant. This book made it clear.
Ishmael contrasted things like learning in civilization and indigenous cultures: civilized kids hate school and have to be prodded to learn anything by the third grade, indigenous kids learn the history of their people, all their technology, and how to live in the world just as easily and naturally as civilized kids learn to tie shoes or ride a bike. Skills and knowledge, for these kids, have relevance and they learn them directly, not sitting at desks with a hundred other kids considering hypotheticals on paper.
In tribes, Ishmael tells us, people take care of each other and are taken care of. They will all worry together about finding enough meat and how cold the winter will be, but they will never worry, as individuals, about finding a place to live, getting a job, paying rent, having a career, saving money to live when they retire, paying for nursing homes, or paying for food. Can you imagine living without all that stress? People did for thousands and thousands of years. We have only lived this way for a few hundred.