Uneasy in the Islands
Penguin USA, 2011
Reviewed by Seana Graham
Although I was born in Southern California, and Santa Catalina Island was part of my Angelino awareness, I never really registered its more northerly cousins off the coast of Santa Barbara and Ventura. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I was working on a trivia book about Southern California, that I came across the history of the Channel Islands, and particularly the Native American history. At some point, then, I purchased a copy of T.C. Boyle’s novel, which focuses on the islands, thinking that, as in his acclaimed novel The Tortilla Curtain, he might well deal with some of the non-white inhabitants of the region. But as I flew over these islands on a beautiful clear day in January this year, I realized that I hadn’t gotten to the book yet.
If I was expecting Indians, though, I was due to be disappointed. The native tribes of these islands have long since departed as the story opens, and When the Killing’s Done makes only passing reference to them. (Though as a link below will show, the Chumash are not quite as finished with the islands as all that.) But Boyle is after something different in this book. He wants to talk about how the educated and privileged classes of today see themselves in relation to nature. One theme of the book is the peculiar intertwining of human agency and human helplessness. Through much of the story, people are making big decisions about what sort of life belongs on two particular Channel Islands. But the book opens with a storm that has tragic consequences, and this is far from the only time that nature overwhelms human wishes and calculations.
Although When the Killing’s Done moves back and forth in time between several eras on these islands, the present day story involves two strong-willed people at odds with each other, though for idealistic and what each considers noble reasons. Alma Boyd Takesue is a biologist who works for the National Park Service and her aim is to clear invasive species from the islands, helping native plants and wildlife to survive. Her adversary is Dave LaJoy, an animal rights activist so extreme that he makes PETA members look weak-willed. How these two tangle forms the basis of the plot.
Several times in reading, I found myself comparing the book structurally to Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog. There is the same shifting between opposing viewpoints, with each side being allowed to make its case. However, the two principal characters here are not as sympathetic in their stances as Dubus’s, perhaps because both are so driven by ideology. Each will come to a reckoning of sorts. But neither is as sympathetic as, say, Cándido Rincón of Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, which lifted a veil for me on the lives of the migrant workers I passed by each day. What Boyle accomplishes in this book, though, is to make our human decisions for the natural world seem more complex and ambiguous than we normally take into account. In this, it is a great counter to hubris.
And so, when the National Parks Conservation Association happened to send me an email just a few days after I finished the book with the subject line “You Can Help Set Channel Islands Future!”, for once I felt absolutely no rush to weigh in.