Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

Salt Creek is a powerful and riveting account of a family struggling to make a living in the harsh environment of coastal South Australia, depicting the pioneering patriarchal entrepreneur and his devoted but long-suffering wife, and the children that will grow up with both an attachment to the place and an instinct to escape it. This story gets inside you and makes you feel the struggle and the dilemma, and wish that it could have been different.

We meet Hester Finch, in Chichester, England in 1874 where she lives as a widow with her son Joss, in the house where her mother spent her childhood, remembered from the stories her mother used to tell, in a place so far from this new reality, of that life in Salt Creek, South Australia.

Hester takes us back to her childhood in the Coorong, narrating the family story throughout the period she lived with them at Salt Creek from 1855 to 1862. Her father was an entrepreneurial businessman, who could never settle to one thing, without always having his eye on the next great idea, the thing that was going to make him rich, a success. For a while the family had lived in Adelaide, while he ran a successful dairying business, but not content to stick with that he would borrow against the things that seemed solid to invest in the next thing. He’d bought land at Salt Creek, but the sheep he’d hoped to farm were lost at sea while being transported, causing the entire family to be uprooted as the family home required selling to pay the debts.

The family find themselves leaving their grandparents, friends and familiar town environment behind to live on an isolated peninsula in rural South Australia. They must rely on each for company, schooling and help their parents out to run the farm and household.

Hester’s mother becomes melancholy and withdrawn from the moment she views her future home, requiring Hester to have to step into a more encompassing role than just that of eldest daughter. To add to her woes, their mother whose youngest Mary is only three years old, discovers she is again with child, and the nearest neighbour not company she can bring herself to indulge.

Mrs Robinson was no comfort to her and never would be; she was the measure for Mama of how far she had fallen.

The family discover indigenous Ngarrindjeri people camping not far from their property, and become interested in a boy named Tully, who is able to speak a little English and seems keen to learn more. Slowly he slips into their lives, though without ever letting go of his ways, his disappearances, his unassuming manner, his sharing of old knowledge about which trees can and shouldn’t be cut, which ducks to avoid, much of it disregarded particularly by the two eldest sons and the father as superstitions to be ignored.

“Do you know what that boy told me today? That we shouldn’t have chopped that tree down and then showed me which ones we should use, can you believe it? Didn’t have all the words but did very well making his thoughts known. I told him we would use the wood that we saw fit since it was ours, not his, and did not trouble to conceal my feelings.”

Although the father believes himself to have an enlightened view, that all men are created equal and seen by the Divine as being equal, his beliefs are challenged when it comes to his own family, both in the example he sets for his son (in relation to indigenous women) and the restrictions he places on his daughters (including his desire to use matrimony as business negotiating device).

It is the younger siblings who grow into and live his more open minded view, and who will force to the surface his deep conditioning, which is unable to embrace those beliefs at all. Hester recalls the first day they set eyes on indigenous people and is filled with remorse:

When I think of what they became to us and how long I have been thinking of them I would like to return to that day and stop the dray and shout at our ghostly memories and the natives: ‘I am sorry. I am sorry for what is to come.’

While the older boys rebel by going off to try their luck in the goldfields, the younger sibling Fred stands his ground and resists his fathers efforts to use him as a form of payment, he spends a lot of time drawing plants in his notebook and is fascinated by the work of Charles Darwin.

“Watching Fred, I began to wonder if it was something other than interest and curiosity alone that drove his actions. He was so purposeful in what he did. Self doubt did not occur to him; he was able to look only at the thing, the task before him. I wished that I could do the same. My own self was mysterious t me. Oh, I knew what I did, but other than that I was invisible to myself…I did not know or see the difference that I made, the space I occupied in this world.”

Hester stays and stays, witness to all that occurs, as the challenges of Salt Creek and the rigid attitude of their father begin to wear everyone down. Hester is warned more than once, that she should not hesitate should there be an opportunity for her to escape. Mrs Robinson comments ‘Hard for girls like you’ to Hester and when questioned why, tells her:

I know, my dear, I know. It’s the expectations that hold you back. They’ll kill you in the end, if you’re not careful, suck the life right out of you. Run, I say. Run whenever you should have the chance, don’t spare a glance back or you’ll turn to salt or stone.”

The arrival of European settlers, their desire to own and restrict land, to create boundaries, while beneficial to their capitalist desires, becomes increasingly detrimental to the way of life of the indigenous people, as they pollute their fresh water access, introduce sickness and disease and contemplate removing their children.

Brilliantly conceived and heartbreaking to read, Salt Creek opens itself wide for discussion on the many issues related to the impact of colonial idealism, whether it’s how it affects women and children, how it impacts and impedes the native population, the imposition of solutions by one group on the other, the inherent disrespect and disregard for a different way of life.

I’m interested to read these accounts yet I am repelled by what transpires, knowing there is little possibility for an alternative ending, it is and always be a kind of clash of civilisations, which annihilates the ancient view, and will only accept its input when it has been turned it into a version of itself.

Lucy Treloar speaks of the considerable unease she felt and continues to feel two years on from its initial publication  in Australia, at telling the story, which was partly inspired by her ancestors attempt to set up a farm in the Coorong region. Compelled to share the experience and uncomfortable in the role they played. – Lucy Treloar on writing about indigenous Australians

The short video below gives voice to the Ngarrindjeri people and some hope that we might learn something from their more sustainable way of living in harmony with the natural elements around us.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by Aardvark Bureau, an imprint of Gallic Books. It is published in the UK in September 2017.

Advertisements

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Annie Proulx’s second novel The Shipping News (1993) won both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for fiction. Her short story Brokeback Mountain from the collection Close Range was made into a powerful film, directed by Ang Lee.

She is now 80 years old and has just published the novel Barkskins, a historical family saga that follows the descendants of two Frenchmen who arrive in the King’s newly claimed territory of New France (an area that today is made up of parts of Canada, the US and two islands that remain under French control).

BarkskinsProulx hasn’t published a novel since 2002 and has spent the last ten years researching, studying, writing about and travelling to visit trees and forests of the world. Her novel has at its heart, the theme of deforestation and uses the two families to illustrate her thinking, that there is no greater protector or more harmonious dweller of a lands natural resources than those who are native to the area.

One of the characters Rene Sel, marries a native Indian woman, the other Charles Duquet, marries the daughter of a Dutch shipping magnate and from then on their destinies and the generations that follow, will navigate different paths, one family struggling to survive and to retain their identity and ways, the other creating a family empire, intent on finding a renewable resource to ensure the business continues to grow and expand.

Again Duquet saw the great weakness of the trade – surplus or scarcity. Beaver might disappear from over trapping or disease or for no discernible reason. Or the Indians took too many. He now regarded tales of immense profits in the fur trade as fables. He wanted great and permanent wealth, wealth for a hundred years. He wanted a fortune to pass on to his sons. He wanted his name on buildings. He was surprised to discover in himself a wish for children, a wish to establish a family name. The name Duquet would change from a curse to an honor.

Rene and his children learn from his Mi’kmaq wife, their mother Mari, who was a repository of answers to their many questions, for her people had ‘examined the world with boundless imagination for many generations’ already.

Over the months and years he learned from her. His relationship to Mari became a marriage of intelligences as well as bodies. They stood opposed on the nature of the forest. To Mari it was a living entity, as vital as the waterways, filled with the gifts of medicine, food, shelter, tool material, which everyone discovered and remembered. One lived with it in harmony and gratitude. She believed the interminable chopping of every tree for the foolish purpose of “clearing the land” was bad.

Parts of the novel are riveting and in particular, Proulx inhabits in an engaging manner, the characters of Charles Duquet and one of his descendants Lavinia Duke, who becomes the head of the family empire and is as ruthless as the men who became before her. It is she who Proulx sends to New Zealand in search of the enchanted kauri forests.

Yes. They have trees. Especially do they have certain ‘kauri’ trees, which experts describe as the most perfect trees on the earth, truly enormous trees that rise high with all the branches clustered conveniently at the top. The wood of these trees is without blemish, light, odourless, of a delightful golden colour, easy to carve and work, strong and long-wearing.

However, at just over 700 pages and spanning 300 years and multiple generations, it is a challenge to keep the characters in mind and as a result some make more of an impression than others, which both quickens and inevitably often slows the pace of reading, a necessary compromise perhaps when illustrating such a significant era of history through the narrative form of fiction.

It is a book of a writer’s indulgence, this is Proulx doing what pleases her; a trained historian spending her time indulging a subject that fascinates and rouses her interest which is also a major concern to her. Her book is a wake-up call, even if its lessons sadly, have been learned much too late.

“Nobody can visit the big trees again; the huge forests do not exist. The understorey has gone, and the smaller plants and animals – the ecosystem has been damaged. Change is right with us, and you can get frightened.” Annie Proulx – The Observer, 5 June 2016

I reviewed this book for Bookbrowse and also wrote an article Beyond the Book on the territory of New France, where it is currently Editor’s Pick and available to read by clicking on the link below:

Read Claire’s Review and Article at Bookbrowse

To buy a copy of the book via Book Depository, click on the link below:

Buy Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.