The Settling Earth: Short Stories by Rebecca Burns

settling earthLast year I read Rebecca Burns’ collection of short stories, Catching the Barramundi, and I was so wowed by it I was happy to receive her latest work for review.

The Settling Earth is a collection of short stories all set in the same time and place, a small settler’s community in New Zealand in the 1800’s. This book is almost blend of novel and short stories, since each story leads in some way to the next one, and all the characters’ lives intersect.

These are stories about the challenges facing these early settlers, particularly the women. Life in this place and time was harsh, and not always what the settlers were expecting. Sarah comes to this place by marrying an older man with a good living, although marriage isn’t everything she might have wanted. Phoebe lives in a brothel, hiding from an abusive lover, and has to make difficult choices to take care of their child. Laura paints in secret because her stepfather would disapprove. Mrs. Gray takes in unwanted children, for a price.

A short distance from the main drag, the boarding house sat in blackness. Christchurch’s respectable folk, keen to assert a connection with the pilgrims on one of the pioneering first ships could, if they wanted, pretend that places like Miss Swainson’s house did not exist; and mostly, that suited Miss Swainson just fine. She did yearn on occasion, though, to march her girls up Cashel Street, in their silks and feathers, shouting out the names of their pompous, shamefaced clients.

These are short, short stories, and just as you get to care for the characters, you are moved on to the next one – but you’ll find out more about each character in the stories that follow. Like Burns’ Barramundi, each story is like a glimpse through a window, but you’ll want to know more. Motherhood is a common theme in many of the stories, and even as a non-parent the stories resonated with me. These characters want to protect their loved ones, and they aren’t always successful. A warning – disturbing things happen in some of these stories, although they aren’t graphic, they will definitely disturb.

This book reminded me of Emma Donoghue’s Astray in a lot of ways, in the theme of settling in a strange land, and in the emotional impact of the stories.  Astray felt interconnected even though its stories took place around the globe and centuries apart. In contrast, The Settling Earth is about neighbors, sharing many of the same struggles.  It’s the strong sense of place that gives life to these stories.

Convention, in the form of calling cards or tea parties, was unimportant to them, to the point of hilarity. No, here, in this colony, there are opportunities, but our hearts are the same; they are still pulled and crushed, still open to hope. Our flesh still yearns for the touch of someone long dead. We just go through it at the bottom of the world. Thank goodness God can still speak to us when we stand on our head.

The last story in the collection is about Haimona, a Maori native trying to make sense of the white settlers. It’s written by Shelly Davies of the Ngātiwai tribe and adds an important perspective to this collection.  We see the white settlers mostly disregarding the Maori; in contrast it’s critical for Haimona to understand the white settlers’ motivations.

A wise man made sure he had women on his side, at his back, in his bed.  There was strength in that – in recognising and protecting the mana of women.  From what little he knew of the white man’s world, this was yet another thing they got wrong.  Their women were powerless.  But imbalance always demands to be put right.

I’ve never been to New Zealand but I hope to go some day. This book gave me a chance to explore a part of its history. I highly recommend both of Burns’ short story collections.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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