Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Blowing in the wind

I don’t suppose there will ever be another week in my life in which I go through an earthquake and a hurricane. I certainly hope not. Having grown up in Scotland on the shores of the North Sea, I am no stranger to gale-force winds and torrential rain, but these suburban houses aren’t built with two-foot stone walls to withstand the elements. On Sunday morning after a long, sleepless night and a near miss from an enormous snapped-off tree branch, my husband and I felt fortunate that our house emerged from Hurricane Irene with the power still on and the basement dry.   
Our recent double whammy from Mother Nature brought to mind a story by Jack London that describes the horror of a cyclone striking a low-lying atoll in the South Pacific. The story, called The House of Maputi, is set in the Tuamotus Islands, which are a long chain of atolls (an atoll is a flat coral island consisting of a ring of land round an inner lagoon) roughly 200 miles north and east of Tahiti. In the 19th and early 20th century, they were the center of the Polynesian pearl shell industry, and people from all the other islands in the South Pacific would flock to the Tuamotus during diving season to find work.  
When a cyclone (as hurricanes are called in the Pacific) hits an atoll, there is no escape - no hills to climb to escape the enormous waves or to shelter from the battering winds. The only way to go is up – into the coconut palms.
In Jack London’s story, a trader named Alexandre Raoul lands on the tiny island of Hikueru to bargain for a magnificent pearl. As the cyclone roars in, he lashes himself to the top of a writhing palm tree, and from this perilous perch, watches the clusters of people clinging to the treetops like “bunches of human fruit.” As the wind increases, he sees trees being uprooted, “flinging [their] load of human beings to the ground. A sea [wave] washed across the strip of sand, and they were gone… He saw a brown shoulder and a black head silhouetted against the churning white of the lagoon. The next instant that too had vanished... The bunches of human fruit fell like ripe cocoanuts. The subsiding wave showed them on the ground, some lying motionless, others squirming and writhing.”
Jack London was using his imagination but he was describing a real hurricane, one that had struck the Tuamotus on January 13th 1903. Between the winds and the accompanying forty-foot tidal wave, 377 people were killed, and not a building remained on Hikueru, which had previously been a sizeable community of houses, churches and warehouses.
Among the dead was Alexander Brander, the oldest son of Princess Titaua (my biography of whom has just been published) who had been living on the island and selling pearl shell and copra to visiting schooners. His common-law wife and one of his two daughters also perished in the storm. And three years later, another hurricane was to claim the life of yet another of the cast of characters in Children of Eden. Narii Salmon, the handsome and gentle youngest son of Ariitaimai and Alexander Salmon, was drowned along with his son when his trading schooner was smashed to pieces in the even more ferocious cyclone of 1906.
Thus can fiction illuminate the bald facts of people’s lives.

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