Despite being set in two different centuries, nearly 100 years apart, the books in today’s post share one element: a blinkered Euro-centric view of life “down under”. Read on to see what I mean.
In A Town Like Alice (1950, NYPL e-book), Nevil Shute’s novel set during and after WWII (and made into a pretty damn good series back in 1981) comes in essentially two parts: In the first, Jean Paget tells her lawyer, Noel Strachan (the novel’s narrator), about the horrors of being a prisoner of the Japanese during the war. She and the other survivors of a several-hundred-mile march across Malaya — only 17 of the original 30+ women and children captured when the Japanese invaded the Malayan peninsula — finally settle in a village on the eastern shore until the war ends more than 2 years later. Back in England, she inherits a small fortune and decides to use some of her money to build a well for the women back in the Malayan village that harbored her and the others. Then she learns that Joe Harman, an Australian she thought the Japanese had killed, had NOT died, and the second part of her life — and this novel — begins. Already in love, they connect, weather many difficulties (most of which involve a modern Englishwoman adjusting to life in the outback), and settle happily on a station, where Jean uses more of her funds to vitalize the nearest town’s economy.
For an adventure yarn (based on the true story of nearly 80 Dutch civilians marched through Sumatra, with fewer than half surviving), it’s a great book, if you can remain blind to the underlying problems of racism and colonialism, of outsiders (i.e., Europeans) taking over and destroying land inhabited by indigenous peoples (i.e., the Aborigines). Jean Paget easily falls into adopting Joe Harman’s slang, using racist language around her husband’s Aborigine stockmen without any kind of awareness of their presence. She builds an ice-cream shop in the town, setting up a room in the back where the Aborigines can buy treats without mixing with the whites.
I don’t blame Jean for her behavior or lack of awareness — I blame Shute. He’s happy to make the point that the women who survived the march were the women most willing to live as Malayan women did — going barefoot, wearing lighter clothing, being subservient to and respectful of not just their Japanese captors but also the Muslim townsmen who they relied on each night of their march for food and shelter — willing, in the end, to work in the rice paddies. Jean, in fact, because she knows some of the language, becomes the group’s de facto leader — the other women, at best, have learned only enough words to give orders to their servants. Yay for some enlightened linguistic/cultural/religious views! But the first thing Jean says, when she first meets Joe Harman after 6 months of marching, is, “It’s such a relief to meet a white man again!”
OK, I get it. The book is set in the 1940s and 1950s, when racial issues weren’t a concern for white people in Australia and New Zealand. I suspect that Shute himself, having just moved to Australia, wasn’t interested in the Aborigine’s POV — he had a great story to tell, and he tells it well. I just wish there’d been even a tiny nod of recognition that Joe and Jean, and even Noel Strachan, were doing well at the expense of others.
Lady Barker’s Station Life in New Zealand (1883/1987, Viking Penguin) is a series of letters, written between September 1865 and November 1868 (and then later edited by Lady Barker for publication). The letters tell of her 3 years on a sheep station in New Zealand’s South Island, about 30 miles west of Christchurch. It’s astonishing to think of life on a sheep station in New Zealand, less than 50 years after the first British settlers had arrived. So new were the British settlements that Lady Barker considers herself one of the “pioneers”, and often writes admiringly of how well her fellow Brits have settled into Christchurch and the stations across the Canterbury plains.
Her life isn’t easy — she and her husband have to deal with floods, fires, a blizzard that kills nearly all their stock and nearly starves the members of her household, the death of an infant, illnesses, loneliness, inept servants, bad food, and non-existent roads. Every trip involves crossing at least one river (sometimes the same river several times), so to travel means to be wet throughout the day. The upside is every settler is a good neighbor — doors are always open, and even the most isolated shepherd will stoke his fire, boil up a pot of tea, and offer you his bed for the night if you show up at dusk, wet and tired.
But again I say — what about the Maori? Lady Barker hardly mentions the native New Zealanders, whose presence she first notes, briefly, just outside of Christchurch as she and her husband travel to their new home. She describes them, not flatteringly, and then refers to “some reserved lands near Kaiapoi where they have a very thriving settlement, living in perfect peace and good-will with their white neighbours.” Really? At just about the same time, on the North Island the Maori are at war with the white settlers.
And then there’s the environment. Wekas (native birds) are hunted relentlessly, because they make it impossible for pheasant and partridge to survive (the English must have their shooting parties!). Two years later, as Lady Barker is lounging near a lake, she yelps with pain: a weka has just poked her with its beak. I cheered for the bird.
She notes that totara trees are becoming rare across Canterbury, as settlers use them for fence posts, furniture, construction. Entire houses are built of kauri wood (by the early 1900s, this tree was reduced through logging to less than 10% of its original population). Sheep outnumber people, and graze relentlessly.
In The Bone People, Hulme’s protagonist worries about the Europeanization of New Zealand. Paul Theroux, in The Happy Isles of Oceania (1992), begins with a brief visit to New Zealand. He notes that the Maori set the environmental degradation in motion when they arrived on New Zealand more than 1000 years ago — introducing dogs and rats to the island (before this, there were no meat-eating animals outside of birds), as well as hunting many of the birds to extinction. The islands’ “natural balance was disturbed,” he writes; “[t]he arrival of these predators produced the ecological equivalent of Original Sin.” White settlers brought additional problems: first rabbits, and then stoats and weasels to hunt the rabbits, and then deer and elk. Not to mention plants! Theroux writes, “no growing things are hated more than the rampant gorse and broom planted by sentimental and homesick Scots.”
Funny. When Lady Barker mentioned how grateful she was to see broom’s yellow blossoms on the New Zealand hillsides in the spring, I’d been thinking, how sweet. Now I know that this plant is an invasive species in NZ, crowding out native plants and changing the local ecology. Ah well.