By Carole Reedy
The environment, migration, and conservation are not new topics for novelists. For many of us, our first book on change and migration due to a deteriorating earth was required reading. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, is the landmark 1939 novel in which the Joad family is forced to leave their homestead in Oklahoma, ravaged by the Dust Bowl, for the promised land of California.
Hindsight is foresight. In 1962 Rachel Carson was accused of exaggeration by the government and big business when she challenged the use of chemical pesticides in her groundbreaking book Silent Spring.
For this column, I’ve chosen several books from numerous recent novels exploring these increasingly urgent themes.
The Overstory by Richard Powers
The individual stories and plots of the nine US environmental activists who populate the novel play second string to Powers’ intensely detailed descriptions of the symbiotic relationship between trees and forests and their unique role in the survival of our planet.
Winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize and shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2018, this seminal work is referred to regularly in any discussion of the environment and its degradation.
Three Novels by T. C. Boyle (Thomas Coraghessan Boyle)
I’ve written about the novels of T. C. Boyle multiple times over the past eleven years, and with good reason. The Tortilla Curtain remains among my top ten reads of all time and has been lauded as one of the most insightful on migration in Southern California.
Boyle, without fail, entertains while illuminating our grasp on issues that concern him and our planet, and he does it in an amusing style that can prompt readers to chuckle, despair, or contemplate simultaneously.
A Friend of the Earth
This piece of eco-fiction takes place in 2025, which seemed a long way off in 2000 when Boyle wrote it. It was interesting for me to revisit this book in 2021 after reading it 21 years ago. That which seemed far-fetched in 2000 is more realistic now. Many of his premises ring true: the degradation of ecosystems, deforestation, change in climate, the building frenzy, shortened life expectancy, and overpopulation.
The story is told through the eyes of the main character, Tyrone O’Shaughnessy Tierwater (Boyle’s character names are as intriguing as his own), a 75-year old disheveled man looking back on his life as an environmental activist. Tierwater’s future seems as hopeless as the state of the earth. Boyle does not politicize, but rather tells a compelling story that keeps your mind spinning. Spoiler alert: it ends on a bittersweet but satisfyingly positive note.
When the Killing’s Done
A compelling premise for this 2011 novel: An animal rights activist takes on the National Park Service, which is removing invasive species (rats and pigs) from the Channel Islands National Park in California. Based on historical fact, here Boyle relates actual occurrences by shrouding them in a family story. Other actual events from the islands make their way into the always engaging story that Boyle tells.
As I review T. C. Boyle’s novels I’ve come to appreciate them more with each passing year, and this one especially. His books ring true in so many ways, especially during these days of Jeff Bezos and his space exploration schemes.
In this 2016 novel set in 1994, a group of eight prepare for possible colonization on Mars by spending months in a biosphere facility called Ecosphere. As always, Boyle’s insight and exploration of human reactions, relationships, shortcomings, and strengths are the focus throughout the characters’ isolation together.
By the way, T. C. Boyle’s favorite novelist is Gabriel García Márquez.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
Latin America’s favorite son and a Nobel-prize winner from Colombia, García Márquez focuses on his country and its larger setting in the vast collection of novels and short stories he left us. The magical realism woven throughout his novels carries the reader through time and the lush ambience of the country he loves.
There is no better time to read this 1984 novel, which takes place over six decades, during which an intermittent cholera epidemic affects not only South America, but also the world. In addition, the arrival of the 20th century brings with it severe environmental damage from deforestation. For many of my friends who are avid readers and fans of Marquez, this is their favorite.
The Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet
For me, the outstanding characteristic of this novel is the intelligence and perceptiveness of the twelve children compared to the naïveté of their clueless parents. After being forced into a supposedly grand family getaway in a remote mansion, the children rebel when they perceive environmental dangers that the party-loving parents ignore. The children escape to a safer location, leaving their parents to their debauchery.
Millet has earned well-deserved attention from the New York Times, BBC, and Washington Post. This book was a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction.
Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy
Attention bird lovers: the focus here is on the main character’s quest to follow the Arctic terns on what she believes, due to extreme climate changes, to be their final journey from Greenland to Antarctica. The book transports the reader along with its main character, Franny, on a boat from Greenland to the Southern Ocean. While the novel explores her search and the adventure of following the terns, it also delves into her innermost secrets, shortcomings, and personal issues in need of resolution. Franny’s outer search echoes her inner one. Formerly the author of young adult fiction, here McConaghy debuts as an adult novelist.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Considered by some to be the ultimate in environmental disaster stories, The Road has been made into a film. Don’t be tempted – read the book. The book has a power all its own, with multiple elements including the centerpiece father-son relationship. Praised for its ability to portray the earth’s destruction and yet criticized for its minimal plot and characterization, this book is hailed by many as the masterpiece of our climate emergency. The unusual writing style and use (specifically, the nonuse) of punctuation irritates many readers, me among them, though I understand the source and reasoning behind the author’s choice. This short, intense book will transport you.
How fortunate to live in a world filled with brilliant minds who can raise our consciousness, stir our emotions, inform, teach and at the same time even entertain us.