Guest Review: Colleen Mondor

natives_and_exotics.jpeg

Natives & Exotics
Jane Alison
Harcourt
238 pp.

Jane Alison’s Natives and Exotics is a fascinating look into the way in which people interact with the natural world. From the very beginning, with a prologue that includes Sir Joseph Banks and Alexander Humboldt, Alison defines herself as an author uniquely in touch with natural history and its impact on modern man. She makes it clear that while this is not a book with a direct political message in the obvious sense, it does demand that the politics of man and nature be considered. As Banks marks his map and plots where exotic plants will be relocated, at his direction, anywhere in the world, he remains blissfully and willfully unaware that, by spreading his vision of progress, he is endangering the lives of native creatures. You can forgive Banks for his empire building vision as he was a man of the 18th century, but Alison’s book stretches forward to the 1970s and could very well have continued into the present. My local paper is full of the controversy over large ships dumping ballast water from foreign locales and transporting thousands of exotics species to the Pacific Northwest from Asia. We live in the world that Alison historically explores in her book and the questions asked by her characters are the same ones we should be posting today.


In terms of plot, Natives and Exotics traces the lives of three members of the same family: Alice in Ecuador in 1970, her grandmother Violet struggling to fit into the Australian Outback in 1930 and Violet’s great-great-grandfather George, who flees the Highland Clearances in early 19th century Scotland for a new life in the Portuguese Azores. Each of them struggles with their own vision of wildness and finding their place to call home within it. George’s experience is the most devastating as his love for gardening and the willing Azores climate convinces him to import more and more exotic plants, one of which nearly destroys the island. It is the ultimate of ironies that someone who was driven from his own home should be responsible (although unwittingly) for the same crime in his new environment. It is a lesson in extreme care that all nonnatives must take when relocating; always respect the land in which you live and the flora and fauna which inhabit it.

There were several times in reading Natives and Exotics when I paused for a moment to consider the intensity of Alison’s story. Alice is so overwhelmed by the passion of Ecuador’s beauty and its sheer lushness that she embarks on a mountain-climbing expedition with a teacher and fellow students and notes that “at night the stars were fathoms deep, so bright they cast shadows.” Alice falls hard in love for the country and is sad to leave with her mother and diplomat step father. It is harder still for the reader to witness the arrogant attitude towards the natives prevalent in so many of the foreign-service families, an attitude that reminded me of Emma Smith’s mid-twentieth century novel of the British in India, The Far Cry. Some things, quite simply, never change.

In interviews, Jane Alison has stated that she does not like political fiction and “the only thing to believe in for me is the natural world. It’s enough, there’s no need to imagine anything else.” It was impossible for me not to consider politics as I read Native and Exotics, however. I was constantly thinking of how colonizers import their own culture and traditions and often superimpose them over native ideas. There is a constant unending question in such relationships as to what is best for the people, the land, the country. It is with no small amount of chagrin that as I write this in my Pacific Northwest home I look at my tropical banana trees, potted and thriving in my living room. Was I wrong to bring them here? I don’t know. But I’ll view them a bit more carefully from now on. A little caution, it is clear, is the one thing that never hurt anyone.

Share

Comments are closed.

  • Twitter

  • Category Archives

  • Monthly Archives