Vandrick, Stephanie. 2019. Growing up with God and empire: A postcolonial analysis of ‘missionary kid’ memoirs. Critical Language and Literacy Studies: 25. Bristol and Blue Ridge Summit: Multilingual Matters.

Vandrick analyzes 42 memoirs written by children of North American Protestant missionaries. The editor’s preface says that Vandrick is “a highly respected researcher, well-versed in postcolonial, feminist, anti-racist” and has “class-based theories” (xii). She is also a missionary kid (MK) who has rejected Christianity and reflects a strong bias against “colonial attitudes,” which she claims to have somehow expunged from her own worldview. She does dedicate the book to her parents, missionaries in India where she spent 10 years of her childhood.

Her purpose in writing the book is from several viewpoints: 1) purely academic; 2) to “examine gender, race and social class privilege in missionary settings” (16); 3) to connect with other disciplines in “sociopolitical  issues”; and 4) because the topic has “social justice related implications.” Because MKs have “not much written in scholarly venue,” she will address the colonial themes “evident in their memoirs” (17).

Vandrick identifies MKs as “third culture kids,” who are “migrants, travelers, border-crossers and border-dwellers (7), portraying both and insider and outsider status. She reflects on the “psychological and social aspects” of MKs and admits that mission societies have begun to address such problems.

Vandrick uses the stories that MKs have written in their memoirs to justify her position that  “Feminist scholars have been particularly supportive of narrative as scholarly inquiry” (28). She is firmly entrenched in feminist camp and uses her “own life experiences to interrogate and shed light on the experiences of the MKs and the ways in which the memoirists express their feelings” (30). There is little doubt of her feminist bias, which is reflected throughout the book.

In a post hoc manner she outlines the criteria that she uses for choosing the memoirs (pp. 32-33), providing a table of the authors, date of publication, gender of the MK and the country they lived in. Among other variables, she omits the number of years they lived there, their knowledge of the language(s) of the country and their ages.

There is, quite naturally when discussing missionaries, a chapter (3) on the “exotic” with comments on food, animals, the appearances and behaviors of local people, ceremonies and rituals, illnesses, geography, hardships and lasting effects—the ways in which “the missionaries and their children were enmeshed in colonial (and sometime racist, although generally not consciously so) attitudes and practices” (50). This is but one example of her strong bias and claim that MKs are colonial products and anything “colonial” is assumed to be bad.

Chapter (4) outlines how Vandrick sees MKs treating the local people, with headings that reveal her adverse views of MKs: 1) condescension, criticism and mocking of local people; 2) the memoirists’ stereotypes, conscious and unconscious; 3) sense of superiority; and 4) treatment of servants. However, she is somewhat nostalgic, sentimental and ambivalent in relating her own experience with servants.

MKs often attend private schools and Vandrick denotes chapter (5) to this topic. Her assessment of boarding schools reveals their “feelings of homesickness, unhappiness, abandonment and grief” (70) and how reentry into the American culture is often just difficult.

Chapter six examines MKs in reference to learning the local languages (“or not,” as she says). It is hardly surprising that some learn the language and some do not; some have positive attitudes toward the languages and some do not. Vandrick did not learn the local languages (88), which she regrets, although she claims to know the Telugu language (where her parents worked), which she learned when two years old—a remarkable feat!

Chapter 7 is on “gender,” a topic that any feminist writer will grind axes on. She notes the increasing number of women missionaries and speculates on their roles, including the “memoirists’ perspectives on gender” (96). They, as children, “absorbed the sexist attitudes they observed, even applying them to their own families, in particular their mothers” (97). However, “Fortunately, some matters related to gender equality have improved…on the mission field. Regrettably, on the other hand, many such matters and issues still exist” (98).

“Race and social class” is the title of chapter 8 in which Vandrick claims that “Race was always a fraught issue for white missionaries” (100) anda that bad attitudes have prevailed and intersected with gender. The memoirists did not, in general, write about race. They accepted their social and economic status and the only redeeming factor Vandrick can find is that the MKs were not any worse in their attitudes and lives than what is found among other North Americans (109).

Before her final “personal epilogue” Vandrick outlines a number of implications from her study, including how missionaries and MKs have contributed to spreading English and how they made out “the other” as exotic people and treated them as such.

I did not find Vandrick’s analysis of MKs memoirs particularly convincing—my wife and I have raised two MKs and both of them believe that their cross-cultural experiences greatly benefitted them. They identified with the people and their languages and greatly value the friendships they formed. I have found such positive experiences most often resonate with other MKs—quite the opposite of Vandrick’s conclusions.

Fortunately for them, Vandrick respects missionaries like her parents “who genuinely cared about helping people and made a difference in the world” (120). Nevertheless, her own perspective perceives MKs as part of the “colonial enterprise” and the only difference her book will probably make in the world is to reinforce a negative stereotype of MKs.

Karl Franklin
March 2019