ONE OF the publishing sen- sations of the year has landed its author in a furious argument with Australian Aborigines, who claim that her account of walking barefoot through the outback with a ``lost tribe'' is a hoax.
The dispute centres on Mutant Message Down Under, by Marlo Morgan, 59, a divorced mother-of-two from Kansas. The book, her first, has made her a millionairess. Three years ago, unable to find a publisher, she paid for it to be printed herself. Her daughter did the illustrations. After an initial print run of 300 copies, the book became a runaway hit among devotees of New Age spirituality and self-discovery in the US, selling mo re than 300,000 copies.
Morgan acquired an agent, and this year the giant publishing house HarperCollins paid her a reported $1.7m (£1.13m) for the rights and embarked on a $250,000 marketing campaign. The book has sold a further 350,000 copies since the company published it inthe US in September and in Australia last month. It will be published in Britain in March. Two Hollywood producers are preparing a script, with Susan Sarandon and Goldie Hawn being considered for the role of Morgan.
The problem is that the ``true'' story which has made Morgan a celebrity may not actually have happened. As Morgan tells it in Mutant Message Down Under, she was a health education worker in Kansas City when she received a telephone call from an Australian, whom she had met at a conference, inviting her to Australia to see how "socialised medicine" worked.
On arrival she was distressed by the lot of young urban Aborigines, who seemed to spend their lives sniffing petrol. She helped 22 young blacks set up a successful business making window fly screens. Then came a telephone call from an Aboriginal man who told Morgan she was required to attend a tribal meeting. She flew 2,000 miles across the continent and was met by the the man, ``Ooota'', who then drove her in a Jeep for four hours into the outback. He introduced her to a tribe of 62 Aborigines, adornedin feathers and paint, who spoke no English and had never seen a white person before.
"They were the last of the hold-outs," she wrote. They called themselves ``the Real People". Ooota informed her that she had been chosen for the singular honour of meeting the Real People because her work with the dispossessed urban Aborigines showed she"seemed to care".
The Real People ritually cleansed her with smoke, then made her undress and throw her clothes, credit cards, jewellery and every other aspect of her Western identity into a fire. They named her ``Mutant'', and beckoned her to join them in a walk across the empty outback, the length of the continent. "It is what you were born to do," Ooota told her. In bare feet she spent four months learning to live off kangaroos, wild horses, lizards, snakes, grubs and giant ants that tasted like orange blossom honey, washing in crocodile-infested lagoons. At the end of her walk the Aborigines took her to a secret, sacred cave where an elder explained the real purpose of her journey.
The Real People, he said, were the last of the ``pure human race'', but had decided to become celibate and die out because the Earth was being destroyed. "You have been chosen as our messenger to tell your kind we are going. We are leaving Mother Earth to you. We pray you will see what your way of life is doing to the water, the animals, the air..."
By any stretch of the imagination, Morgan's story is a fantastic one. She gives no clues to when her journey happened, or where it started and ended. The names she gives the tribe members- Great Stone Hunter, Spirit Woman, Female Healer, Sewing Master - smack more of a Hollywood version of American Indians than Aboriginal reality. She bestows a supposedly Stone Age tribe with an astonishing awareness of New Age-speak: they teach her to replace her Western material values with "Divine Oneness" and to learn through them the meaning of "my own beingness''. In Morgan's self-p ublished book she insisted that her story was true. But the HarperCollins dust jacket describes it as a ``fictional account of (a) spiritual odyssey".
Outraged Aborigines are calling on Australians to boycott the book. They say that, while Morgan may have visited Australia and met some Aborigines, her story is a fantasy. They are scornful of her depiction of Aborigines as cannibals. They say she portrays an inaccurate picture of their culture and history to a naive American public in order to make money.
"There is no such tribe as the Real People," said Paul Behrendt, director of the Aboriginal Research and Resource Centre at the University of New South Wales. "There are no longer any `lost tribes'."
In a review in the Sydney Morning Herald, Mr Behrendt's daughter Larissa, a lawyer, wrote: "Morgan manipulates our culture's values and ideas in support of her own beliefs, hoping her audience will know no better. The book, replete with cultural insensitivity, perpetuates myths and stereotypes."
Writing in the Australian, Francoise Dussart, an anthropologist from the University of Connecticut who has worked with Aborigines, described Mutant Message Down Under as "a book about... spiritless, white middle-class, mid-life-crisis feel-goodism. It belongs to a cynical tradition in Western publishing that profits from a readership that thirsts for books offering a balm to millennial fears."
Morgan insists she is telling the truth and that she agreed to HarperCollins marketing the book as fiction only to save the Real People from discovery. Perhaps the real clue to her credibility lies in the last paragraph of her book. "I intend to spend the rest of my life using the knowledge I learned in the outback," she wrote. "Everything! Even the magic of illusion!"
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