Dudman, Clare: A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees
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DISCLAIMER: The author is a friend of mine, so you may worry that my praise of her book is due to bias, whether conscious or unconscious. The latter may be the case, of course, but I'd invite you to read her book yourself to see if my high opinion is justified. I can only repeat the conversation I had with my eight-year-old daughter the other day:
"This is Clare's book. She's a really, really good writer."
"Then why does she talk to you?"
I think it's because I'm lucky.
It was clear to Silas, at least, from the start: the New Wales they'd been promised in Patagonia was a fiction. The other colonists were more apt to be persuaded by their charismatic leader's claims, whatever the evidence of their own eyes. Edwyn Lloyd promised them lush meadows and tall trees, a future for their families and for Welsh culture in South America. What they got was a desert.
Clare Dudman's 2010 novel A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees tells the story of the Welsh colonization of Patagonia in the 19th century. Her work is fiction, but it's based on real-life events, and several of her characters are fleshed out from what little is known of the early settlers. Dudman's focus is on Silas James and his wife Megan, who endure more as a result of their emigration than most of the colonists. Their story is in fact almost unendurably sad, so that one wants to tell the author to stop heaping sorrows on these poor people, but it's not her fault: their tragedies were in fact suffered by their real-life counterparts, Aaron and Rachel Jenkins, who sailed to Patagonia with the first group of settlers in 1865.
The villain of Dudman's story is Edwyn Lloyd, who holds sway over the colonists longer than he should because of his fiery oratory. He's a man with a vision and, it seems, limited conscience, a snake whose arrival on the scene usually signals further trouble. But one of the best moments for me in the book is about 40 pages from the end, when Edwyn for once stands out as a voice of reason and we see at once how complex his character and his relationship with Silas are.
An important part of the colonists' experience in Patagonia relates to the local Indian tribes, nomads who follow the migration of the llama-like guanaco. Part of Dudman's story is told from the point of view of an Indian shaman, Yeluc, who is the first native to make contact with the settlers. Through Yeluc we see that the experience of the soon-to-be-displaced Indians parallels to an extent that of the Welsh, who have left their homes in part to preserve their culture in the face of suppression by the English.
A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees is beautifully written and powerful. Also surprising: going into it I already knew more or less what it would be about, yet I was still caught off-guard repeatedly at how the author chose to tell the story. That it's a beautiful read, however, did not come as a surprise. I expected nothing less from the author of One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead (see my review).