The canary in the coalmine, the butterfly on the hill: Flight Behaviour

Flight Behaviour coverBarbara Kingsolver’s fourteenth novel, Flight Behaviour, is set in Tennessee. The characters are firmly rooted in a primarily pastoral landscape that turns out to be unstable, though most in the novel refuse to acknowledge the changes.

Dellarobia, the feisty young mother trapped in a domestic situation where her only outlet is crushes on local tradesmen, learns to see that the land on which their lives are based is changing before them. In doing so she recognises too the instability of the human landscape.

The book opens with Dellarobia in full flight, albeit in unsuitable shoes, up a mountain towards an extra-marital tryst. But the sight of mountain ranges aflame – not with fire but with something she cannot comprehend – sends her home again, with the sense that running away is not the answer.

The orange flame turns out to be millions of monarch butterflies, a beautiful ‘miracle’ that is the result of a horrible truth. Climate change is rearing its head in a town where people say that the weather is in the Lord’s hands. It changes Dellarobia’s outlook completely. Unlike most of those around her, she doesn’t have much faith in God, and is open to science and to encouraging her intelligent, questioning kindergarten-aged son in a way that few others are.

This is working-class rural America, where college isn’t part of the life plan, where people are judged if they don’t attend church, where floods and orchards rotting in the earth are all attributed to God’s will. But it is the poverty that is an unexpected feature of this novel; while Australians might perceive middle America as overweight and subsisting on junk food, this is a family that hasn’t had take away or eaten in a restaurant in two years.

This is a book about class and about the division of ideas. It is also about denial, and about the lack of security in both the earth and in each other as human beings. Dellarobia, never knowing what else there was to aspire to, sustained herself with crushes on men who were not her husband. Now a world opens to her that is both terrifying and much broader than anything she has ever known.

Kingsolver returns to her theme of religion in this novel – Dellarobia, despite being thrown out of Wednesday bible discussion for having the temerity to actually discuss, weaves bible metaphors into her thoughts throughout the book. Flood and fire: while the bible bashers deny that it is upon them, she is confronted with it through the evidence of science.

The ending of Flight Behaviour has been widely criticised, and while I share some of the criticisms the novel ultimately tells a powerful and imaginative story. It is a book that should be read, because from it there is so much to learn.

Book review: Eleven Seasons by Paul D. Carter

For outsiders, the attraction of Aussie Rules football is hard to understand. In WA it hovered at the edge of my consciousness in winter, and I chose a team as an easy way of identifying my allegiances to the north or the south of the river.

In Melbourne, football culture assaults me with the presence of loud fans in the city after games. Wide-eyed children on the tram, bedecked in team colours with a parent by their side, bring to mind memories of my mother’s stories, of going to the football as a teenager with a much-loved older cousin who has long since passed away.

Bruce Dawe’s poem ‘Life Cycle’ gave me something of an insight as a youngster into what it meant to grow up with football in Melbourne. Now, Paul D. Carter’s Eleven Seasons, which won the The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award for 2012, has added a stirring contribution to the way I understand the culture of AFL, revealing both its problems and its power from the inside.

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An unfamiliar landscape – Skins (2002)

Skins, by Western Australian author Sarah Hay, was an unexpected find – I picked it up by chance from my local bookshop in December, and put it aside because I was afraid that it would be a confronting read; not something I was ready for at the time. But I began reading it a day or two ago and have just finished it; I was immediately hooked by the tension and suspense that pervades the novel from the very beginning.

Skins is primarily the story of Dorothea Newell, an English immigrant who, with her parents and six siblings, settled in the burgeoning town of Albany on King George Sound. In 1835, she leaves Albany and sails with her sister and her sister’s new husband for Tasmania, but they are wrecked a few hundred miles along the coast and end up instead on Middle Island, at a sealer’s camp. Middle Island is not far from the present town of Esperance, but at the time there was no settlement along the coast east of the Sound.

This is not a novel about shipwreck or survival off the land. Rather it is about the tense relationships between rough men and the few women, both Aboriginal and English, in their midst. There is very little happiness in the relationships on the island. Nobody really wants to be there, and the men are violent and possessive, fighting over women, money and loyalties. From the beginning I felt a sense of foreboding, as Dorothea and her sister navigate the treacherous tensions on the island.

I was surprised, though, with where the story led me: those characters whom I had expected to be honest and loyal turn out otherwise, while the sealer Black Jack Anderson, a figure of fear and violence, strikes up a relationship with Dorothea that is unexpectedly tender. The story is partly told by one of the sealers, young James Manning. I at first exepected him to be on Dorothea’s side by virtue of being given his point of view alongside hers. It does not turn out this way, however; he is distrustful of women and angry at his situation. He befriends Dorothea’s brother Jem, and this alliance is part of what eventually leaves Dorothea estranged from her siblings and relying instead on Anderson.

The novel is interspersed with Dorothea’s thoughts and memories as an old woman fifty years later. I found this plot device awkward and by the end of the book I was beginning to wonder what purpose it served. These sections seemed to add nothing to the key narrative of the novel, that of Dorothea’s experience on Middle Island and her longed-for return to King George Sound. But this is because I did not realise until I reached the end of the novel that Skins is based on historical records and that Dorothea was a real person. Thus the fragments from fifty years later are relevant in giving the reader some idea of what happened to Dorothea later in life, even though the narrative would have remained strong without them.

I was struck throughout Skins by the evocation of a landscape that is not wholly unfamiliar to me, but yet which takes on entirely new meanings when seen through very different eyes. These days, traversed by bitumen roads, interspersed by farming communities and criss-crossed by hiking tracks, the land around Albany and Esperance is beautiful; it is not a landscape that frightens me. For the early settlers in Skins, the land is something else entirely: the bush is dense, with the few settlements along the coast reachable only by sea. The bush is by turns bleak and endless, or intensely brilliant in the southern light. It is nothing like the land that Dorothea’s family knew in England, and nothing like what they expected to find in Australia.

I found myself rushing through this novel in my eagerness to know what would happen, and the awkwardness of shifts in time in the narrative – from the 1830s to the 1880s – seemed to be a hindrance as I read. But Skins tells a powerful story and does not hold back in imagining the brutality that women, men and animals were subjected to in the lawless, isolated environment of Western Australia’s southern coast.

Book review: Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

The latest novel by journalist and author Geraldine Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing (2011), is aptly named, for it is full of crossings: the crossing between life and death, between island and mainland, between faiths, between one life and another. Yet these crossings are by no means restricted to the character of Caleb.

Caleb’s Crossing is based on the few facts known about the first Native American student, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, to graduate from Harvard College in the 1600s. On this scant historical record, Brooks has built a novel that revolves not around this young man, but around the fictional character of Bethia Mayfield, the novel’s narrator.

Growing up in the Puritan settlement of Great Harbour on the island that is now Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts, Bethia is the daughter of a missionary minister. She is steeped in an environment of conflicting cultures, for she is at the coalface of one culture’s encroachment onto the physical and spiritual territory of another.

As a girl, Bethia is not allowed to take part in the lessons that her father gives to her older brother, even though she is brighter and more interested in ‘scholarly matters’ than he is. This discrimination rankles, but her rebelliousness is tempered by its conflict with the teachings of her religion. She learns in spite of her exclusion from formal education and, listening in on her father’s attempts to learn the local language of the Wampanoag people, she becomes fluent in Wampanaontoaonk.

It is because of her language skills that she strikes up a secret friendship with Caleb, the son of one of the island’s chieftains, and thus their two cultures meet and each begins to influence the other.

Later in the book Bethia asks herself if it would have been better for Caleb had she never met him, if she had never taught him English or shown him a Bible, so that he might have lived as his ancestors had before him. She makes much of the fact that she has changed his life, but he also changes hers, challenging her faith and further making her question the path that her father and brother have laid out ahead of her.

The story is powerfully told, achieving what could be seen as a key aim of the historical novel – evoking a sense of a world that is long past and that is utterly foreign to the reader. It does this not only through creating a unique voice for a fictional young woman who is constrained by her gender, her religion and her times, but also by not neglecting the reality of day-to-day existence.

Life in the 17th century is hard work, and Brooks does not neglect this in her storytelling – there is the endless drudgery of domestic work for the women, the challenges faced by settlers in a new colony, and the consistent influence of religion on every part of their lives. There is also the continued presence of death in the Mayfield family – at first, I wondered if this element was overdone, but its purpose in the shaping of Bethia’s story becomes clearer towards the end of the novel.

While Bethia pushes boundaries and in doing so is a character who readers of the twentieth century can easily identify with, she ultimately remains within the confines of her own world view, and does not stray too far from the path that her culture has shaped for her. She is unable to attend college with the men in spite of her intelligence, and she remains, throughout her life, a product of Puritanism. Nonetheless she manages to live in a way that does not leave her downtrodden under the boots of men. Her story seems, because of this, both realistic and uplifting.

Alongside Bethia’s struggle against the confines of her role as a female is the clash of cultures that is going on all around her. In Caleb’s Crossing, the Native American culture on the island is irrevocably changed in less than two generations. The Wampanoag’s spirituality has been replaced with Christianity. It is frightful to be confronted with the complete alteration of a culture in such a short space of time, and the novel allows no easy exit from the imagining of this reality.

Bethia aids and abets in this change through her friendship with Caleb, and so the novel offers no easy moral answers. This unusual young woman may be intelligent, kind and fair, seeing the Wampanoag people as equals and battling to be sure of her own faith, but in the end she does not become part of their culture – they become part of hers.

This review originally appeared on upstart.