Contemporary Fiction / Highly Recommended

Review: When the Killing’s Done by T.C. Boyle

I love T.C. Boyle and this book didn’t disappoint – in fact I’d have to say this is one of my favorites.  The story is a reflection on environmentalism, conservation, and the strength and beauty of nature. The two main characters, Alma Boyd Takesue and Dave LaJoy are mortal enemies, pitted against each other in a fight to do what’s best for wildlife on the Channel Islands.  Alma is a biologist for the National Park Service, who has studied the wildlife patterns on the islands and has developed two proposals to save many of the dying animal and plant species on the Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands.  Unfortunately her proposals require killing one species of animal to restore balance to the rest.  She proposes a systemic poisoning of all rats on Anacapa, and the shooting of all wild pigs on Santa Cruz.

Dave is an animal rights activist.  He’s taken PETA a step further and created his own animal rights organization.  He protests, disrupts meetings, and commits acts of vandalism to further his cause.  Alma presents a detailed scientific rationale for what she’s trying to do, but Dave sees science as part of the problem.  He doesn’t think we should be killing one animal to save another.

Their disagreement is an interesting one.  Dave argues we should harm no living creatures; instead they should battle it out for themselves.  And while we dislike his strategies, his point of view makes sense.  Why single out one species over another to eradicate?  The Park Service argues that the rat and pig populations were introduced to the islands by man, and therefore man should return the islands to their natural state.  Both sides have merit, even though Alma is the far more sympathetic character, and her decision seems to be the right one because it’s based on research and careful thought, where Dave is ruled only by passion and anger.  And yet, there are times in the book where the Park Service celebrates its killing of these animals in a way that made me uncomfortable.  Another time, Alma has to hire professional hunters to shoot each pig, and when she visits the island to observe, she herself becomes uncomfortable when faced with real life hunters and rifles.  The hunters are instructed to shoot each pig as humanely as possible, but realistically, where hunters are in unpredictable situations and facing extremely dangerous animals, what does that really mean?

While Dave is of dubious moral character, most of the other activists are sympathetic and genuinely care about their cause.  Dave’s girlfriend, Anise, is an interesting character.  She’s a hippie, vegan folk singer, and she seems kind of brainless at first, but then we learn more of her childhood.  Anise is actually raised on a ranch on the Santa Cruz Island.  Her mother, Rita, starts out as a cook but ends up developing real expertise in the raising and ranching of sheep and lamb.  From Rita’s perspective, we see that someone who ranches – in other words, who raises animals for slaughter – can care as deeply about animals and the environment as anyone who calls themselves an activist.  Rita knows the island intimately, she cares for the land but also needs to make a living.

Rita is an unapologetic carnivore, where her daughter swears off meat forever after a scarring incident with the slaughter of newborn lambs.  I’ve always had a lot of respect for people who understand what it takes to raise and butcher animals.  Most of us spend our lives buying neat little packages of meat from the grocery store or restaurants, and we don’t ever see how our food is produced.  We’d be extremely uncomfortable, if not horrified, if we did.  One of my favorite books on the subject is The Compassionate Carnivore, by Catherine Friend, which really made me think about how detached most of us (Americans at least) are from food production, and how little we care about the abuses in the meat industry.  The book is written by a farmer who says the answer to reforming the meat industry isn’t for everyone to become vegetarians, although eating less meat is a good thing.  Rather, we should exert our commercial power and strive to influence the market by choosing humanely produced meat.

When the Killing’s Done really spoke to a lot of things I care about, and did so in a really complex way, showing there are no clear answers about how people should act and what it means to be an environmentalist.  Is a vegetarian a better person than a meat-eater?  Is a person who spray paints a car better or worse than a person who kills wild pigs?  Is a person who lives or works in the wild more connected to nature than someone in a city?  Does our responsibility towards other humans mean more than our responsibility towards animals?  And what does it mean if we care about a place, or an issue, but do nothing about it?

Boyle also shows the reader that both Alma and Dave are naïve about the power of nature.  The first chapter describes the experience of Alma’s grandmother, who loses her husband and nearly dies at sea when their boat encounters a storm.  Alma studies the fragile ecosystem of the islands, with their dwindling wildlife populations, and sees something she can save.   Dave sees something he can mess around with to prove a point, but he doesn’t respect the danger that the islands and the ocean present.  Nature, as seen through Boyle’s eyes, is dangerous, and uncontrollable.

My husband spent a lot of time on Catalina Island as a boy, and we had a great time pulling up Google Earth and looking at the islands.  It made the book that much more meaningful and I’m glad I had the chance to learn so much about these islands.  Boyle really traces the history of Santa Cruz and Anacapa, describing the different ownership, industries, and animal life that took place there. I loved the sense of place this book provides:

 On the dock – and it’s so purely beautiful it always takes her breath away, with the tower of rock rising up right there to reduce her and the boat and every human thing to insignificance, the air alive with seabirds, the view to the east along the cliffs so jagged and wild and ancient you could almost picture the great flying reptiles of the Cretaceous crouched there over their cluttered nests… [T]he campers and day-trippers are held in check by one of the Park Service volunteers, who’s there to recite the rules for them, rules meant for their own protection and which most people tend to observe, though there are always screw-ups as there always will and must be when you’re dealing with the public.  People fall from cliffs, people drown, people get drunk and do violence to one another, bones break, hearts give out, and it’s all in a day’s work for the Park Service.

T.C. Boyle isn’t a perfect writer; his books drag a bit in places, including this one.  But he always shows you a side of human nature that is brutal and unforgettable.  He gives you characters you care about and characters you hate.  He puts so much research and detail into his work that whatever the subject matter – whether it’s nature preservation, Frank Lloyd Wright, or turn of the century medicine – you will definitely view it in a new way.  Each of his books is different; they can be funny, satirical, disturbing, or informative.  And each has been worth reading.

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