2 out of 4 stars
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Sister Jaguar's Journey, by Sister Judy Bisignano and Sandra C. Morse, is an autobiography of a Dominican nun's life, from her abusive childhood through to her experiences in the Amazon rainforest living amongst the Achuar tribe. It's deeply introspective, deeply personal, and Sister Bisignano is utterly unflinching in retelling the abuses and injustices she suffered at the hands of her fellow nuns and even her own parents.
Throughout the book, I experienced formatting glitches that replaced a word or two with gibberish symbols. They rarely impeded understanding, and weren't overly common, but it's entirely possible that they were unique to the software I was using to read it. I do believe that the book was professionally edited but be aware that, depending on your device, you might experience similar weirdness. I read Sister Jaguar's Journey on a PC, using a program called mobi file reader.
From the moment I read the blurb of Sister Jaguar's Journey, I was raring to go. A catholic nun consuming hallucinogenics in the rainforest? Sure to be a rollicking ride. That wasn't quite what I got, though. The opening section of the book is a straightforward retelling of Sister Bisignano's road to becoming a nun, and from there it describes her life working in alternative education; helping children of undocumented migrants, even a foray into smuggling bibles into China.
Sister Bisignano works hard to paint her younger self as angry and recalcitrant, though I found her an intensely sympathetic character. I struggle to imagine anyone putting up with, for example, being shipped off to an insane asylum by an older nun with a grudge, and then being expected to thank her for being given treatment. While it's clear that a lot of Sister Bisignano's problems and mistreatment stemmed from her own attitude souring authority's opinion towards her, I often found myself on the side of her angry, younger self.
Sister Jaguar's Journey presents a fascinating insight into the workings of the Dominican order, sure as it is to have changed radically by now, and it was that which really kept me reading. I was raised and schooled by Catholics, though was never really aware of the hardship which these nuns undergo. From being forbidden to speak most of the day, or from lifting their eyes from the floor after a certain time, I found the rituals and demands of convent life simultaneously engrossing and horrifying.
As the story wended its way into the Amazon, however, things started to unravel for me. I had hoped that the same riveting cultural insights that had held the section on convent life together would prove even more fascinating here, but the tone shifted, and took a lot of the vibrancy out of it. Sister Bisignano often gushes about the Achuar in ways I found distracting, especially when discussing (or simply glossing over) cultural norms that most in the west would struggle to get on board with. As much as it isn't our place to judge the culture of these people who live an existence fundamentally different to our own, holding them up as paragons when, for example, physical contact of any kind is forbidden within the home, or outward signs of emotion being frowned upon, is a bizarre stance to take. Additionally, the stories of Sister Bisignano's adventures vanished in lieu of diatribes on the animalist beliefs of the Achuar, written with a reverence seemingly bordering on apostasy. I spent much of the middle of the book bewildered as to Sister Bisignano's true stance or opinions on much of what was happening, and answers weren't particularly forthcoming.
The third and final section of the book is written as a series of prayers, blending Catholicism and the Achuar's beliefs, which I found something of a slog. As someone with no particular interest in exercising either religion, I struggled to see what I could get out of them and ended up skimming very quickly.
Overall, Sister Jaguar's Journey is a genuinely interesting memoir, provided you know what you're getting into. I think that, had I known to expect more of the “Animism 101” in the middle part of the book, I wouldn't have been as frustrated as I was when the anecdotes dried up. Additionally with the prayers cropping up when they did, as I was expecting another hundred or so pages, the entire experience halted abruptly, and I was just very confused by it all.
I give Sister Jaguar's Journey 2 out of 4 stars. There's genuinely a lot in here for everyone, but I'm not certain there exists much of an audience for the entire thing. Learning about life in a Dominican convent and about life in the Amazon are two very disparate genres, and it was always going to be tough to blend them seamlessly.
Sister Jaguar's Journey
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