The Forgotten Village is a novel (well, more a story) that can be read in less than an hour and is unaccompanied by beautiful if hazy black and white pictures on every page. It’s the story that John Steinbeck wrote in 1941 for a film of the same name that was released that year (and can be seen on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H7-lx78PrHY)
Two ideas, which Steinbeck describes in a brief introduction, lie behind the film:
“It means very little to know that a million Chinese are starving unless you know one Chinese who is starving.”
“Birth and death, joy and sorrow, are constants, experiences common to the whole species. If one participates first in these constants, one is able to go from them to the variables of customs, practices, mores, taboos, and foreign social events.”
They made the film by creating a simple story, and the story was essentially, Steinbeck explains, a question: “Too many children die—why is that and what is done about it, both by the villagers and the government?”
The crew then went to the remote and very poor Mexican village and found local people to act the story. It was simple for them to act the story because they were familiar with every part of it.
At the beginning we meet a family who include a son, Juan Diego. The whole family is pleased because Esperanza, the mother, is expecting a son. But Paco, Juan’s younger brother, becomes sick. The curandera, the wise woman (played in the film by the real thing), came to cure him. “It is the airs,” she said, “the bitter airs. They have gone to live in his stomach. I will prepare an ancient cure. My grandfather had it from his grandfather and he from his.”
Juan Diego is unconvinced, observes that many children in the village are sick, and visits the teacher, the only man in the village “who had been to the outside world.” The teacher says: “I think it is the water. I think the germs are in the pueblo well.”
[This aligns with the battle over the cause of cholera fought out by Western science in the 19th century.]
The teacher visits Paco, but his advice is rejected. The curandera is furious: “You will kill the people with your foolishness.”
“But Paco died and became a little saint—gone straight to heaven without sin or sorrow, without shame or burden.” The neighbours came end danced all night; it is not good to be sad at such a time.
Sickness continues among the children, and the people process to the church and pray for the sickness to end. But it doesn’t.
The teacher organises a slide show to try and educate the people. “Here in our village, there are little animals that live in the water. They are the murderers of our children. But there is a way to cure it. We must clean up the water and cure the children. The serum from an infected horse can cure the children.”
The mention of horse blood was a mistake. “Horses’ blood,” the chief said. “Are we animals? Are we horses or digs or rats? What is this horses’ blood? What is this new nonsense?” The village rejected the ideas of the teacher.
Juan Diego believes the teacher is right. He decides boldly to go for help. He has never been more than 10 miles from his village but now he travels to the city to ask for help. “The city was terrible for him.” But he persisted, found a doctor, and arranged for a medical team to visit the village.
But the village rejected them. The curandera “was afraid for her business.” She called, “The horse blood men are here.” The people hid their children from the doctors. The doctors disinfected the well, but when a child died the villagers thought it was because of poison from the doctors. They drive the doctors from the village.
Juan Diego tries to treat his sister secretly, but his father finds out and expels him from the village.
The doctors pay for Juan Diego to go to school in the city. “They come from the villages to learn, boys like you, Juan Diego, and girls. They learn not for themselves, but for their people. It will not be quick, Juan Diego; learning and teaching are slow, patient things.”
The story is current in that people in Northern Nigeria, Pakistan, and other countries have rejected vaccines on grounds similar to those of the Mexican villagers of the 1940s. Indeed, lots of people in high income countries reject vaccines for similar reasons.
Modern medicine can reduce death rates dramatically, but it cannot supply meaning to death in the way that religion did for the Mexican villagers.