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Book Review - Easter Island by Jennifer Vanderbes

The Navel of the Earth

Easter Island
by
Jennifer Vanderbes

Published by The Dial Press

Review by W. R. Greer


Easter Island is a place full of mystery. It's an tiny, isolated island, 1500 miles from any other landmass. It was formed from volcanic eruptions at sea and has never been linked to a continent. Everything, plant and animal, is an immigrant to the island. It was believed to have been settled by Polynesians about 300 A.D. who named it Te Pito O Te Henua, the navel of the earth. The early inhabitants carved huge statues, some as tall as 33 feet and weighing 82 tons, called moai, and stood more than 200 of them along the coastline. When the first Europeans visited the island on Easter Sunday in 1722, there were hundreds more moai being carved in the quarry. When Captain Cook stopped at the island in 1774, almost all the moai were toppled and work had stopped on the ones in the quarry.

For centuries, Westerners have been unable to explain how the moai were built, transported, and raised on the coastlines. Easter Island is devoid of trees and any animals larger than a rodent. There is no wood or rope that could be used to move the moai. It is also one of only five places known to have developed their own written language, called rongorongo, found only on ancient tablets, and it's never been deciphered.

Author Jennifer Vanderbes uses Easter Island as the center of her remarkable debut novel to tell the story of two women who visited the island 60 years apart. Interwoven among the two stories are very short chapters concerning the German fleet caught in the Pacific at the outbreak of World War I, and their desperate attempt to get across two oceans and back home. Their secretive dash across the Pacific included a stop at Easter Island, for reasons never understood, adding one more element in the island's myriad mysteries.

In 1912 England, Elsa Pendleton's father has died bereft of funds, leaving her and her mentally-impaired sister, Alice, in potentially dire straits. As a favor to her father, one of his colleagues, an archaeologist named Edward Beazley, asks her to marry him. He agrees to provide for and protect both Elsa and Alice. Elsa's main concern is Alice. She's spent her whole life being her guardian, teaching Alice all she could about the world, and alleviating the effect of Alice's tantrums. Parliament was debating the Feeble-Minded Control Bill, which might force institutionalization for Alice. Edward is commissioned by the Royal Geographic Society to take an expedition to Easter Island for two years to study the moai and its culture. It's his honeymoon trip for Elsa and him, as well as Alice, and one to which she eagerly agrees.

The crossing across the Atlantic, down the South American coast, through the Straits of Magellan, and out to Easter Island takes a year in itself. Even though they are married, Elsa and Alice share the captain's cabin, while Edward sleeps alone. Elsa's love for her sister is boundless and it will always be the most important relationship of her life. While Elsa is Alice's champion, always pointing out her intelligence and artistic abilities to others, she realizes that Alice is also her burden to carry. At one point she is upset at unexpected behavior in Alice that she hadn't foreseen, and punishes herself for it.

Elsa rolls over, pulls the rough wool blanket to her head, then tosses it aside. She doesn't deserve to sleep. Since childhood, she has felt that guarding Alice was a task given to her by a higher power. And in those moments when Alice tripped on the stairs, when she knocked her head against a doorjamb, or when a passing group of children mocked her, Elsa believed she had failed. So she would assign herself penance -- four nights without dessert; a week of sleep without a pillow; once she left her favorite doll on the steps of the Blessed Mary Church with a note attached: For a worthier child. How else did one accept sacrifice, except to believe it part of some heavenly plan?

Once they arrive at Easter Island, Edward expects Elsa to act more like a wife. She submits to him and sleeps in his tent, albeit on her own cot. For a while they're happy, sharing the experience of exploring a new culture together. Edward concentrates his efforts on trying to understand the moai, while Elsa tries to interact with the local populace. While not a scientist like her father or husband, Elsa longs for her own sense of accomplishment. She decides to try to decipher the rongorongo tablets, and after months of finding and studying them, she discovers an old man in the leper colony who can translate them for her.

Elsa is a young woman longing for her own life, her own freedom, her own discoveries, after spending her life to that point in service to her father, sister, and new husband. Yet she feels that she'll always be tethered to Alice, who wants to be a woman in her own way. Alice initially helped Elsa by copying the tablet symbols to paper, but decided she'd rather help Edward with the moai. This triangle relationship begins to fray on all their nerves, since each realizes that they are bound by circumstance and can never have the life they desire. It is the arrival of the German fleet that forever changes all of their lives.

In 1973, Greer Farraday arrives on Easter Island. She's a botanist and palynologist, come to study ancient pollens. She believes that if she can get a deep enough sample of sediment from the crater lake, she can identify when the first vegetation arrived on the island and be able to re-create the island's initial flora. She's also a widow and fleeing the memory of her brief, but troubled marriage to a man much older than her. Thomas Farraday was one of her botany professors, already famous for his scientific discoveries he made at a young age. The trip to Easter Island is her first professional trip alone, doing her own research, and the first since her husband's death.

Much of Greer's story is her recollection of her years with Thomas and the unraveling of their marriage and professional lives. She always lived in her husband's shadow, a situation driven by his celebrity and social mores of the time that denied women the same educational and professional opportunities. Greer accepts these limitations on her life, while dreaming of her own accomplishments. The trip to Easter Island is to prove to herself that she can go it alone.

Life on the island is different than Greer expected. On a tiny island that can be traversed in a matter of hours and has a small population of people, everyone know everyone else and what they are doing. While she'd prefer to be a recluse, she finds herself part of a small community. Mahina is the local woman who provides her housing and meals. Her brother-in-law, Ramon, provides horses or jeeps for transportation. There are three other scientists on the island doing research as well. Vicente is a Chilean trying to decipher the rongorongo and explain the purpose of the German fleet's visit in 1912. He flirts with Greer, but stops short of trying to court her as he realizes her preference to keep a certain emotional distance.

It is through Greer's research that a lot of the information about the mysteries and history of Easter Island are explained. She examines the journals of the early visitors to the island for clues to how the moai were raised, why they were toppled, and why there are no trees on the island. There never was a natural disaster to explain the mass floral extinction. After reading the account of the first European visit, which led to tragedy when a group of them opened fire with muskets on the natives crowding around them, she muses about the history of exploration.

Greer closed the book and set it down. How often in the history of the world, she wondered, had the same story unfolded? An armed exploring party goes ashore and opens fire. The moai, the rongorongo, the floral extinction: None of it really mattered. Easter Island was like every other landmass in the world -- when after centuries of isolation it met the rest of the world, the world struck it down. But what can be done? Wasn't all prehistory and history -- speciation, human migration, exploration -- just an elaborate game of musical chairs? A border was crossed, a colony taken, an island explored. A snake stowing away on flotsam made it to a new shore, a breadfruit tree in the arms of a naturalist crossed the ocean, a prehistoric mammoth traversed a continental land bridge. The music played, positions changed, and in the end, a chair was taken away. A resource was removed and somebody was left standing. Extinction, genocide, survival of the fittest. Someone always had to leave the game.

After a slow start setting the backstory for both Elsa and Greer, Easter Island plunges forward with these two women searching for their own identity on an island unsure about its own. Jennifer Vanderbes weaves seamlessly among her stories explanations of science, a realistic depiction of academia and the clamor for celebrity even with scientific circles, and the social limitations of women during two different stages of the twentieth century. While exploring the mysteries of an isolated island, two women discover they are part of something much larger, and they have the choice to accept that or not.

Easter Island is a satisfying read that explores the mysteries of the human soul in the most isolated place in the world, the navel of the earth. Both Elsa and Greer find that searching for oneself can be fraught with peril, since no man, or woman, is an island.

Copyright © 2003 reviewsofbooks.com

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Jennifer Vanderbes
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