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.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

When the earth moved

I was lying on my bed on Tuesday afternoon just before 2pm when my house distinctly shuddered. As I sat up in alarm, the shudder became a violent shaking, like sudden turbulence on a plane. I staggered along the upstairs hallway, wailing with fear and confusion. I couldn’t think straight but my mind reeled with visions of a massive gas explosion or a bomb blast. But the reverberations went on and on, and I clung to the banister while the house heaved and rattled and rumbled around me. It felt like the world was ending.  
It wasn’t till the movement finally subsided that I was able to uproot myself and run for the front door. My neighbor shot out of his house barefoot, looking as stunned as I must have looked to him. “What the f--- was that?” we called to each other, and he pointed to my windows which were still gently undulating. I hadn’t thought solid matter capable of moving like that. Still thinking it might have been an explosion, I dialed 911 with shaking hands but got a busy signal. But within five minutes every TV channel had switched to emergency coverage and was announcing that we’d just had the strongest earthquake on the east coast since 1897.  
It turns out that where I live in Maryland is part of an “active seismic zone” centered on a faultline that runs through central Virginia, south of Washington DC. And apparently there have been 200 earthquakes in this area just since 1977. I even remember feeling a couple of them - in one the house shuddered under me once as if a particularly heavy truck had just driven by and in another I was woken in the night by our window air conditioner unit seeming to move and settle in the window. So I’d come to think of earthquakes on the eastern seaboard as being a barely perceptible shiver in the earth.  
But this was a whole different ballgame. Because it was so utterly unfamiliar and unexpected, it felt supernatural, as if a great wizard had pointed his wand at the land and said: “Commoveo!” (That’s the Latin imperative for shaking something violently – I looked it up.) In fact, I remember wondering as I clung to the banister if this was what Judgment Day would feel like.   
In describing his experience of the 1835 ConcepciĆ³n earthquake in Chile, Charles Darwin, while remaining calmly scientific in his account, described exactly the “strange idea of insecurity” that being shaken like dice in nature’s palm produces.
“I happened to be on shore, and was lying down in the wood to rest myself. It came on suddenly, and lasted two minutes, but the time appeared much longer… There was no difficulty in standing upright, but the motion made me almost giddy: it was something like the movement of a vessel in a little cross-ripple, or still more like that felt by a person skating over thin ice, which bends under the weight of his body. A bad earthquake at once destroys our oldest associations: the earth, the very emblem of solidity, has moved beneath our feet like a thin crust over a fluid; - one second of time has created in the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would not have produced. In the forest, as a breeze moved the trees, I felt only the earth tremble, but saw no other effect. Captain FitzRoy and some officers were at the town during the shock, and there the scene was more striking; for although the houses, from being built of wood, did not fall, they were violently shaken, and the boards creaked and rattled together. The people rushed out of doors in the greatest alarm. It is these accompaniments that create that perfect horror of earthquakes, experienced by all who have thus seen, as well as felt, their effects.”
Perfect horror though it was while it lasted, I’m glad I went through it, especially as no one was killed or badly injured, because nothing is more valuable to a writer than first-hand experience. And I now know my imagination would never have done it justice.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

By the North Sea

Jim Tribble, myself, and Glenn Jones
Picture courtesy of Kevin Dunion

I’ve just come back home to the suburbs of Washington DC after a three-week visit to the United Kingdom – hence the absence of posts on Midatlantic over the last month. I spent lots of quality time with my mother and other family and friends, but my trip was also notable for the launch of my booklet-length biography of Princess Titaua of Tahiti (From the South Seas to the North Sea) in my home town of Anstruther on Thursday July 28th.

Two events on that day celebrated the Princess. In the afternoon, there was a ceremony to mark the installation of a plaque on the outside of Titaua’s Anstruther house, Johnston Lodge. Placing blue information plaques on the exterior of buildings that have been lived in by notable people is a tradition in Britain, and this was the Princess’s turn. A group of people gathered in the rain to commemorate the event. A local historian, Dr. Stephanie Stevenson and I each said a few words, and a couple of photographers took our pictures for the local press. Although the weather was a bit uncomfortable, it felt appropriate because the same conditions prevailed at the Princess’s funeral in the same town 113 years ago. Afterwards, we hurried down the road for tea and biscuits at the marvelous Scottish Fisheries Museum, where I used to work in the school holidays.
The rain had stopped by the evening when the Kilrenny and Anstruther Burgh Collection held a reception at the town’s bookshop, East Neuk Books, to celebrate the Burgh Collection's publication of From the South Seas to the North Sea. I gave a short talk and slideshow about the Princess’s life in Tahiti and her strong connections with Scotland. The evening was particularly memorable for me for the chance to reacquaint myself with some old friends from my childhood, including my outstanding and inspiring high school English teacher, Alistair Leslie, still going strong in his mid-80s.
My thanks to Glenn Jones and Jim Tribble, the chairman and publications officer of the Kilrenny and Anstruther Burgh Collection, for their efforts in bringing the booklet to fruition and to John Barker of East Neuk Books for hosting the launch. And to everyone who came and bought copies! All proceeds will benefit the Burgh Collection’s work in preserving the written and oral history of Anstruther.
The evident interest that the Princess’s story evoked in Scotland has led me to decide to write a longer book about Titaua and her two Scottish husbands, focusing on her great love for her second husband which estranged her from her children and caused her to die 10,000 miles from home. Of course this will be in addition to Children of Eden, the book I am already writing on the Princess’s Anglo-Tahitian birth family, the Salmons. At this rate, I may spend the rest of my professional life working on this story but I can’t think of more interesting and enjoyable way to spend it.
From the South Seas to the North Sea: The Story of Princess Titaua of Tahiti can be ordered from: East Neuk Books, Rodger Street, Anstruther, KY10 3DU by phone (01144-1333 310474) or e-mail (eastneukbooks@tiscali.co.uk). The book costs £4.99 (£3.25 for bulk purchases) plus £1.50 postage for UK orders or £2.50 for overseas orders.