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John Dollar

About The Book

From Marianne Wiggins, the award-winning author of Evidence of Things Unseen and Properties of Thirst delivers “a superb novel, hypnotic, disturbing, and good that most readers will devour it in one gulp” (The Washington Post Book World).

Charlotte Lewes, a young Briton newly widowed by the Great War, departs for colonial Burma in 1917 to escape the ruins of her life. As a schoolteacher in Rangoon she is rejuvenated by the sensuous Oriental climate, and she meets John Dollar, a sailor who becomes her passionate love and whose ill-fated destiny inextricably binds her to him.

On a festive seafaring expedition, the tightly knit British community confronts disaster in the shape of an earthquake and ensuing tidal wave. Swept overboard, Charlotte, John Dollar, and eight young girls who are Charlotte's pupils awake on a remote island beach. As they struggle to stay alive, their dependence on John overwhelms him, and an atmosphere of menace and doom builds, culminating in shocking and riveting scenes of both death and survival.


Chapter One: Last Act Of The Apostle

They appeared with the sun at their backs on the crest of the hill after daybreak, black figures, threading their way toward the sea through the gray rocks and heather into the town of St. Ives.

The old Indian descended first, leading the donkey on a tether; Charlotte rode across the donkey's back. Charlotte's hair had gone from gold to white when she was rescued from the island years ago, and it fell around her now, wild and full and loose, because the Indian had thought it looked its best that way. The Indian had rinsed the long white hair in tea she brewed from flowers of the English chamomile, then she had anointed it with almond oil, but hadn't found the courage nor the faith to bind it up. Neither had she closed the eyes, folded the arms, entwined the fingers, nor wrapped the body with cloths soaked in linseed oil to stanch its putrefaction. She had known her mistress to have died before so this time she sat vigil, not daring for a full day to disturb the body from what she thought could be a deep but only temporary sleep. She had waited, watching, holding a makeshift wake to discover if this death was going to be irrevocable in the way that some deaths are, or if this death was going to be a sleight of hand like Christ's or like the seasons. This was not the first time she had watched a person die and this was not the only time this person, in particular, had died; so she was not bereft so much as she was chary in the several hours of severe and awful silence that descended over Charlotte's body. Finally three things happened -- not so much occurred as seemingly accumulated -- which proved that death this time was lasting and irrevocable. The first proof surfaced on the corpse's skin: Charlotte was an old woman, two decades older than the Indian, and for the last ten years her skin and her aroma had been those of dry old age, two powdery sensations, like the wings of lepidoptera. But after she had fallen silent in the night her skin had started to turn waxy. The second proof was soon to follow with the daylight. Charlotte's eyes -- one blue, one green: the independent signs of her two natures -- had always signaled youth, but with the light of the next day they grew murrhine and clotted, vitelline as yolks and lastly, thirdly, she began to stink.

The Indian had been alone but once in life and so, exploring that condition, she began to sing. While cleansing Charlotte's hair in chamomile, the Indian surprised herself in song. It was not a pleasant noise at first, arising as it did from grief, but after several sounds of pure lament, the Indian found music, half-remembered, from her childhood and she sang, nonstop, as she groomed the corpse and set out on her journey with it into town. A tin miner's daughter, on her way to school that morning near St. Ives, was frightened by the sound and ran to town to warn her friends a witch was walking down the hill, but sightlines over Cornwall ravel. The land buckles and it troughs and although the children of St. Anselm's school in St. Ives strained at the window, they couldn't catch sight of the demon. The witch and its victim had vanished.

The Indian wove 'round the valley, avoiding its roads, cutting through pastures where lambs for the slaughter ran, innocent. She saw several men in succession, wearing caps and rough jackets. She gave them wide berth. She was unused to men. She was unused to people. Charlotte and she had lived for six decades on high land where rock was the backbone just under the earth. They had done nothing. They looked at the sea. The Indian knitted and planted her gourds and potatoes. Of all of God's fruits she best loved potatoes, loved holding them, planting their eyes. The Indian cooked: unleavened bread, thick soup, thin stews. They never ate at a table. On a mat on the floor, side by side, back to back, they took single meals never breathing a prayer of thanksgiving. At night before going to bed they drank bowls of goat's milk and looked at the sea. When they spoke, if they spoke, they were careful of saying not much. Birthdays were always forgotten. The seasons were never rejoiced. The summers in Cornwall were never too hot to remind them of where they had come from, or Hell. They lost their religion to silence, they lost their forbearance to fear. Year after year they refused to forget, to look forward, look inward, look anywhere, but to sea. The Indian loved the blind eyes of potatoes. She rubbed them. She set them eyesdown in the rock-riddled earth. Each year she grew the same number. Nothing progressed. Nothing changed. Except Charlotte was dead and soon, the Indian knew, she herself would die, too.

Only first she had come into town to make peace with the englishman's devil.

The man in the black dress had spoken.

Madam, he said, Madam, he thought, was the best he could do. "Madam, he said, "I must ask you most kindly to see my position."

"I will see it, yes. Ask."

"You must see that it's not every day."

"Very good. Yes, it's not."

"It's not every day one is called on to deal with a matter like this."

"Yes, it is not."

"You do speak, you are fluent, conversant in English?"

"I am a Subject."

"Of course, well, the rules are quite clear. The rules are quite strict on the subject."

"She is One. A Subject."

"On this matter, I mean. Holy ground. There's a question of Rites. Holy unction. A question of -- do you know -- was she -- baptized?"


"She was -- properly baptized?"


"When and where?"

"A long time ago. In a church."

"But I mean, before we consider, we need the baptismal certificate."

"Yes, very good, I will pay."

"You don't understand. There has to be proof that she's Church of England...."

"Yes, very good. She is English."


"The proof. She is English. The Church of England. Same-same."

The man in the black dress waved the back of his hand toward the donkey. "Look," he said. He was not meeting her eyes. She looked where he looked. "Go over there," he instructed. A sign read, "Police." "They can help you."



"For Heaven?"


"Properly buried?"

"I'm sor-ry -- ?"

"You won't make the business?"

"Look -- "

"You won't say the prayers?"

"I am sor-ry...."

"You won't put her down in this ground?"

"It's out of the question."

"The 'question'?"



"Verboten. Défendu. Non licet, interdit. Vetitum est."

Was he mad? Was this hokus?

The Indian took two steps backwards and put up her hand. She showed her palm to his eyes to signify she, too, could translate. The english makes laws. He makes one law for men. He makes one law for women, a law for his children. Laws for his dogs. A law for bats. This law, exclusive, ecclesiastic, for keeping the dead from the dead, under ground. Very good, she translated. The english would never fill rivers with corpses, he hides them instead in the ground. He eats with sharp knives. He chews with a knife and a fork. He buries his dead so the other white castes will not cook them and eat them. Worms and the maggots are better than teeth of one's enemies, that's why the white caste is always at table. He eats and he eats. He eats mountains and ore. He eats diamonds and rubles, blue sky. He eats cities, chews names. He eats people. Her name was something a long time ago that the english had chewed from its whole state of "Menaka" into a word they said "Monica" into the status of "Monkey", for short. He translated her person, he chewed and he chewed. The Indian knew a translation, though, too. She translated his laws into liquid, into the likely suspicion of outlawry, floating face-up on her being, pretending a surface, a sea: she could bury, o yes. She had buried before. She could translate while smiling, bow down and back up, take the donkey with Charlotte across it to wait by the gate of the high wall till darkness, till he and his brothers all slept. It would be pocus, a bother, the words, but she'd have to remember. She'd said them once, many times, many ages ago. Blessed be the root of our desiring, no, no. May that come upon him which comes upon a drum at times of feasting, yes. A beating. No one would deny her right to mourn. No one would prevent her doing right by Charlotte's soul.

She sat down on her haunches in front of the wall. The donkey slept, standing. She sang, while she sat and watched Charlotte. She held Charlotte's hand. Charlotte's hair moved in the wind, as if living.

After dark they stole in. There was a moon and the graves were all light. Some spirits assembled. Diggery dig, Monkey said. In her heart she felt slight as a girl. Against the wall, by a shed, there was a shovel, a bucket, a single-wheeled handcart. Monkey tethered the donkey. How many years ago, Charlotte, did they do what they did on that shore by the light of this moon? Dig here, you crazy old woman, the Indian ordered herself.

She dug.

She threw her weight into the breaking of ground. Sixty years, or a lifetime, Just digging, she judged. She and Charlotte had killed them, not Monkey so much, although Monkey had beaten their heads with a stone, after their hands had stopped moving. Then Charlotte and she had dragged their two bodies down to the sea for the vultures and sharks. Then Charlotte had said, 'I want you to bury him.' Charlotte was crazy by then.

Monkey had dug a big hole, digging alone in the sand with her hands. Charlotte had stood by, just watching. 'Is it ready? she'd said. Monkey was blinded by tears. How big must it be? she had wondered. When should I stop?

Charlotte had picked up his bones. The arms and the legs and the head. Then she and Monkey had puzzled them out in the earth till they looked like a man. Place his head facing Hell, Charlotte said. Monkey twisted the skull. 'Place him eyes-down in the earth.'

Then Charlotte had wept and Monkey covered the bones. Night had come fast. Charlotte tamped the earth with her feet and the moon had come out. Under the moon she kept tamping and tamping, stamping his grave as if tamping a fire, stamping and stamping, a march going nowhere. When she came to a halt she fell to her knees and said, 'Say it with me. Man that is born of a woman is full of misery Amen.'

-- Misery, amen, Monkey said. She got down on her knees next to Charlotte.

He's cut down like a flower he fleeth as shadow and never continues one stay Amen.

-- In one stay, amen, Monkey said.

Thou knowest Lord secrets of our hearts but spare us O God most mighty O holy and merciful savior Thou worthy judge Suffer us not at last Amen.

-- Yes, Monkey said.

Say after me: Earth to earth ashes to ashes.

-- Ashes. Two ashes, Monkey had said.

Dust to dust.

-- A Dust. Two dusts.

As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be world without end.

'Without end,' Monkey said.

Copyright © 1989 by Marianne Wiggins

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide
The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for discussion for Marianne Wiggins' John Dollar. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. READING GROUP QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
  1. John Dollar traces the fortunes of Charlotte Lewes, a grieving World War I widow who feels like a passionless "ghost" floating through the streets of England. When she comes to teach English children in Rangoon, Burma, Charlotte recovers her sensual nature and experiences a reawakening of love with John Dollar, a sailor with an unknown past. But this novel is hardly a straightforward love story. How would you describe Marianne Wiggins' novel to a friend? What kind of a novel is John Dollar? A satire? A tragedy? In particular, what roles do religion, power, imperialism, and magic play?
  2. The members of the English community in Rangoon devote their lives to creating a facsimile of their English homeland, which to them is "myth and memory, a place more real in microcosm, in its re-creation, than in any actuality." Why does this bewilder and even offend Charlotte, and how is she different from her "mannered, pre-emptive, supercilious" countrymen?
  3. The first time the snake appears in the novel, it is coming through the window of Oopi's room, threatening to slip inside her and kill her. To fend it off, Oopi feels she must draw on the privilege "of her race," and "call upon her inbred nation if she's to hold her own against the vagaries of nature." What is happening here? What does the snake seem to represent to Oopi, a seven-year-old product of English society, and what symbols and themes is Wiggins beginning to establish? What is the significance of the snake, and how does this significance shift as serpent imagery recurs throughout the novel?
  4. Along with the snake, what other images and metaphors color the course of John Dollar (i.e.: dolphins, kites, rubies, sea turtles, bananas)?
  5. With a "sense of exhilaration which comes when one's life bears a likeness to the fictions that one's dreamed," each member of the King George Island expedition steps ashore with The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe in mind. How does Daniel Defoe's classic adventure -- in which a seventeenth-century Englishman is marooned on a tropical island, where he ponders the nature of God and man, and of morality and civilization -- inform Wiggins' story about twentieth-century English colonials? What is Wiggins doing here? If you had to reduce Robinson Crusoe and John Dollar into a pair of brief morality tales, how would their messages, politics, and ideologies differ from each other?
  6. Beyond Robinson Crusoe, how does John Dollar recall and complicate some of the Western literary canon's established works? For instance, your reading group might consider the ways Wiggins' novel enriches and riffs on themes that arise in Shakespeare's The Tempest, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, or Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart.
  7. What significance does the act of naming people and objects play? In the Old Testament, to name something is to perform a God-like act that echoes the creation of the world in the book of Genesis. In John Dollar, the English re-name the Island of Our Outlawed Dreams to honor King George. And the native servants are each named after a different (English-language) day of the week. What are some other examples of naming in the novel?
  8. How do the acts of naming and lawmaking become expressions of power as the girls establish their new civilization on the island? Who holds the power, and how is the girls' miniature society structured? Why does it fall apart?
  9. In John Dollar, the act of storytelling is itself an expression of power, a way to mark the supremacy of a culture or religion. Cut off from English society, the girls turn to storytelling as a way to feel and find meaning, to remember, and to escape from the increasing languor and lassitude of their decaying island civilization. Why isn't it possible for the stories Monkey learned from her Indian mother to coexist with Nolly's biblical stories?
  10. How exactly does Nolly's belief system work, and how does it influence the nature and workings of the girls' microcosmic civilization?
  11. What happens to the island community after the girls watch the pygmy "children" eat their fathers? How does the introduction of fire on the same day affect the power structure on the island?
  12. What presumptions of superiority and entitlement are inherent in the way the English colonials in Burma enjoy "the weighty thrill of bringing light, the torch of history, into one more far-flung reach of darkness"? Explain. Considering the eventual fate of the novel's characters, what do you think Marianne Wiggins might be saying about colonialism -- and notions of civilization -- in John Dollar?

About The Author

Lara Porzak

Marianne Wiggins is the author of eight novels, including John Dollar and Evidence of Things Unseen, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award. She has won a Whiting Award, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, the Heidinger Kafka Prize, and was shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction. She lives in Venice, California. 

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (December 1, 1999)
  • Length: 224 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780671039554

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Raves and Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle Richly imaginative...pure adventure.

The Washington Post Book World A superb novel, hypnotic, disturbing, and good that most readers will devour it in one gulp.

New York Newsday At her best the incantatory Marianne Wiggins goes beyond magical to sheer demonic possession.

The New York Times A powerful story that not only pulls you through to its final pages but also propels you back to the beginning again, where you find you want to follow her descent into hell a second time.

Los Angeles Times Book Review Marianne Wiggins' power is disjunctive, disruptive; she pounds the atoms of discourse until they split and go radioactive....Wiggins writes with a feverish brilliance...close to prophetic brilliance.

The Washington Post Book World Marianne Wiggins dares to make fictions that stand in the face of heart-cracking circumstance, fictions that, in fact, resound with hearts shattering.

Booklist Wiggins is one of those critically acclaimed authors whose books acquire passionate followings...who find passion to be a source of both salvation and gothic nightmare.

London Sunday Times Marianne Wiggins does not so much tell a story as make her reader live it.... She renews our sense of what prose fiction can be.

The New York Times Book Review In making us see her characters' humanity, she also compels us to acknowledge our shared yearning and sense of loss.

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