Thursday, April 02, 2015

Review: The Settling Earth

Rebecca Burns

The Settling Earth

By Rebecca Burns
Odyssey Books, December, 2014

About the Book

Marriage transplants Sarah thousands of miles from home. A failed love affair forces Phoebe to make drastic choices in a new environment. A sudden, shocking discovery brings Mrs. Ellis to reconsider her life as an emigrant.

The Settling Earth is a collection of ten interlinked stories focusing on the British settler experience in colonial New Zealand, and the settlers’ attempts to make sense of life in a strange new land. Sacrifices, conflict, a growing love for the landscape, a recognition of the succor offered by New Zealand to Maori and settler communities—these are themes explored in the book. The final story in the collection, written by Shelly Davies of the Ngātiwai tribe, adds a Maori perspective to the experience of British settlement in their land.

My Review

Here, Ms. Burns presents a collection of short stories, each one featuring a British émigré who must grapple with the harsh realities of a new life in the foreign world of colonial New Zealand. Each story provides the next link in the chain that binds these characters together. Stories of loss, sadness, fear, violence, and hope mingle to illuminate the arduous road these characters are traveling.

On the journey we meet a bewildered wife far from home, a prostitute who works to support her illegitimate child, a temperance advocate who rethinks her life, a woman who commits infanticide to survive, and hardened men who must scratch out a living amidst the barren landscape. The land, Auckland society, cultural morals, survival, and the mixing of native and colonial populations are all explored here. The last story in the book is authored by Shelly Davies and provides a Maori’s perspective of the British colonization of the land.

Haunting, sometimes disturbing, the stories are deeply personal and incredibly moving. It is effortless to feel the characters’ pain, fear, and will to survive, and I found myself flying through the pages to learn more about each one. Oftentimes, the ties that bind the characters are not immediately apparent, so you need to be especially attentive to catch the connections. My only complaint is that each story is only a fleeting glimpse of each person’s life, and I often felt adrift when a chapter concluded, knowing that I would never learn what paths the characters ultimately chose.

This is a riveting, emotional tale of survival in an alien land. Its themes linger long after you have turned the last page.

Rebecca Henderson Palmer

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