The past is not dead ground, and to traverse it is not a sterile exercise. History is always changing behind us, and the past changes a little every time we retell it. - Hilary Mantel
When I think of people emigrating to America the first thing I think of is them sailing into New York and getting their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty; it’s become a bit of a visual cliché in fact. The disenfranchised and put-upon from all over the world flocked there and it should come as no surprise to hear that the Welsh headed there too. What happened, as happened with people from all cultures, is that they began to lose their national identity beginning inevitably with the language. You may well think the benefits would be worth a few sacrifices but, like the Scots, the Welsh take their nationality seriously, passionately even. Being Welsh signifies more than where you were born and live. It is a culture, a way of life, a mindset. And although many were living in poverty and under the yolk of oppressive landlords the idea of giving up who they were to escape was too much to ask.
Enter the picture, a nineteen-century Moses, Lewis Jones (who becomes ‘Edwyn Lloyd’ in the book), promising, not so much a land flowing with milk and honey, but a place of meadows and tall trees, a New Wales in a foreign land called Patagonia, “a wonderful place, a new Eden, a paradise.” Like most of the people he spoke to I had no idea where Patagonia was; I thought it was somewhere near Tibet. It’s not. Patagonia is a geographic region containing the southernmost portion of South America. The name was coined by a Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, and although the etymology is unclear, it refers to the size of the natives, the Tehuelche (who he called the Patagones), an exceptionally tall race, although not nearly as tall as they were reported at the time (9ft – 15ft).
Clare Dudman’s new novel, A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees (and she is keen to stress in the Author’s Note at the back of the book it is a work of fiction although based on facts), follows the lives of the first Welsh settlers from their arrival in 1865 through to 1869, although there is a brief epilogue set in 1879.
The central character is ‘Silas James’ who is based on the real life Aaron Jenkins. We meet him and his wife, ‘Megan’, along with their daughters ‘Myfanwy’ and ‘Gwyneth’ as they prepare to disembark from the twelve-year-old tea clipper, The Mimosa, which, having been converted to carry passengers, has just completed the arduous two-month crossing from Liverpool to New Bay near the port which will eventually be called Porth Madryn. The couple have been one of five who have lost children on the crossing, in their case, a son, ‘Richard’. A Welsh-sounding name is all good and well but the beach they find themselves heading towards doesn’t look like any Wales they’ve known:
Browner. Colder. Beside him, Megan’s head swirls. Everything is clear now. Every detail. Yellow patches of cliff become pockets of dead gorse and weeds like bramble, and in between them the ground is bare, sandy, infertile. This is more than winter. It is as if something has killed everything. As if there’s been a plague. Nothing moves. Nothing makes a sound. Nothing lives.
Megan’s eyes widen. ‘Silas...?’ She says, ‘Silas?’
Nothing but banks of mud, pale cliffs. Sea.
He reaches for her hand.
‘Silas...?’ It’s as if she’s come alive. As if she suddenly sees.
This is not what they were expecting. They are reassured by Edwyn Lloyd who is waiting to greet them, however, and told that their settlement is forty miles south beside the Chubut River. Has Lloyd lied and if so what could his motive possibly have been? He is a charismatic speaker and few of the newcomers have any real doubts. Silas is not so easily enthralled but he holds his tongue. Even the Promised Land had to be tamed; God didn’t simply hand it to the Israelites on a platter.
Silas agrees, although the way Edwyn puts the proposal to him he can do little but comply, to set out before the group along with John Jones to herd the sheep there being too many “to go by any small ship.” They only have enough water “to last a couple of days, which Edwyn had insisted would be enough to take them to the valley:”
‘Besides, you are sure to find more water, there will be ponds, just as there are here,’ he assures them.
‘And the odd fountain appearing miraculously from a rock, I expect,’ Silas mutters to himself miserably. But there is not much else they can do – there is a limit to how much water a man can carry, and if they carry too much they will travel even more slowly.
‘Faith, Silas,’ Edwyn says, clapping him on the shoulder.
‘I’ve got faith,’ Silas says, shaking him off.
All does not go well. The two men are separated and Silas ends up wandering alone and lost. Without water and delirious he is close to death. But he is not alone. An old Indian shaman, Yeluc, has been watching the new arrivals and has followed Silas who, for some reason, of all the people there, he has taken a shine to:
I will watch you, I told the man, I will be your guardian, your brother. I will let nothing harm you, and although he heard me he didn’t see me. He turned and his eyes were like the rou’s. There was a kind spirit in them, like something young in an old shell, and I wanted to hold it to me and make sure it lived. I guided him along the river, shaking branches of the small willows so he knew where to go. He didn’t see me. Not once. He walked as if he dreamed. And soon we came to where his own kind were and I could lead [my horse] away, for then there was a smell of a fox cooking in a pot, and they greeted him with cries and a word that I now know must be his name: ‘Si-las.’
Although the bulk of the book is written in the third person, Yeluc’s chapters are first person narratives and I particularly enjoyed his observations and wry remarks; I was a little disappointed when he gets absorbed into the general narrative. You’ll notice he mentioned something he called a rou. Although the book is not burdened by them there are a smattering of both Welsh and Tehuelche terms. A small glossary at the back lists the important ones although a few are explained within the text, bara for bread, for example. A rou is a guanaco, which is a bit like a llama.
When they finally reach the “promised land” they find that all is not as promised. And things go from bad to worse: they lose their flock, and it is not a small flock, some eight-hundred animals. A meeting is called to discuss their position:
Now Mary Jones is standing up and quoting from the report they all know so well: ‘Meadows and tall trees, wild cattle and other game... that’s what it says, does it not?’
Edwyn says nothing – instead he seems to be waiting for someone else to speak with a weary silence. He does not have to wait long.
‘And where exactly did you see these wild cattle, when you first came over here, Mr Lloyd?’ Annie Warlock asks, ‘Because they’re not here now are they?’
‘They were here.’ Edwyn’s voice sound strained. ‘It must be the Indians, maybe they chased them away, like they did before.’
Mary opens her mouth to speak again by Caradoc Llewellyn interrupts her. ‘The important thing is, chwaer [sister], what we should be concerning ourselves with, is our current predicament, and what we should do about it, not prodding bruises we can do nothing about.’
The bottom line is that, without the ewes, without crops, they have enough, if they are careful, to last five months.
Mary speaks again, ‘Well we’re going to have to ask for help. Sometimes, Mr Lloyd, even God needs a helping hand.’
Edwyn is deposed and the mob, because that what it really is, declares Selwyn Williams to be their new spokesman – there is no formal vote – and he is despatched to Buenos Aires to ask the government for more supplies.
In the meantime help comes from an unexpected quarter. They may have been expecting an Edenic setting but they were also well aware that this land had sitting tenants even if they didn’t sit still for any great length of time. Like many of the indigenous peoples the Tehuelche are an itinerant nation, moving with the animals and the seasons. It is only a matter of time before the Welsh have to confront them which is why they are reluctant to use up their ammunition on hunting. They have no real clue about how they will be received by the Tehuelche, however, they do not have long to wait; Yeluc has told his small group that it is time to relocate:
‘Where now?’ asks Tezza when everything is ready.
Just down the trail and to where the sun rises, I tell them. Where the Chubut curls before it meets the sea.
‘Where Si-las is,’ Seannu says, ‘is that it?’ And she looks at me with her eyes narrow.
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘I need to see what they do. I need to let our tribesmen know I am with them, I need to know they are safe.’
What is noteworthy here is that when he uses the expression ‘tribesmen’ Yeluc is not talking about reporting on the state of the Welsh camp to the rest of his Indian brothers, no, rather he is expressing an affinity with the Welsh, the Gallatts, as they come to refer to them. What is remarkable is how they differentiate between the Gallatts and the Christianos, the Argentine Christians, who they have come to dislike and distrust.
The first meetings go well. Yeluc and his small band are accepted and a bond of affection develops quickly, not simply between Silas and Yeluc, but among all of them. They begin with simple bartering – bara is one of the first words the Indians learn – and then the old man begins to teach the men of the settlement how to hunt and the women share their knowledge of the plants in exchange for lessons in bread baking.
[W]hen Silas asks Mary if she has changed her mind about the Indians she shakes her head. ‘Just Yeluc, and his women,’ she says. ‘As for the rest of them...’ she shrugs. ‘Who knows?’
Yeluc has chosen to move early though. Shortly thereafter more Indians arrive, one group, and then a second, following the guanaco to the coast. Their leader is the huge Chiquichan, well known to Yeluc, and fond of a drink. An old man and a few women have been one thing but they now find themselves surrounded by over a hundred northern Tehuelche.
After a year of seeing just the same hundred or so faces, they now have to get used to seeing more. It is too much of a change. They have become used to having space, spreading out, laying claim to all that they see, and now they are surrounded and feel hindered and watched.
And then the Indian children begin appearing at the doors of the settlers – I guess there is no smell anywhere in the world more enticing than that of baking – and the first word of Welsh they too learn is bara, bread.
This is not the end of the book, there are a good hundred pages to go after this point and a lot can happen in a hundred pages. What we do learn is more about the relationship between the Welsh settlers and the Argentinean government and what conditions are imposed on them; politics rears its ugly head; we see their crops fail and we see the Welsh ready and willing to pack everything in and then, of all people, Edwyn Lloyd reappears and, although he doesn’t save the day (that honour goes to Megan, Silas’s wife), his rhetoric does rally the people together. Plus we find out his story and a little story that I’d read at the start of the book and forgotten about suddenly made far more sense than it did the first time I read it: context is everything.
People can be very blinkered when it comes to novels set in the past. They read “historical novel” and hear “historical romance” which is something else completely; I’ve not been brave enough to attempt reading one of those yet. The book has at its core a loving and married couple eking out a meagre existence in the back of beyond. I assure you there is not much time for romance and actually what little there is is quite endearing in its awkwardness.
I have only recently begun reading historical fiction and I have to say I’m finding it a curious beast. I never enjoyed history at school – I was very much in Henry Ford’s camp (“History is bunk”) – primarily because it never felt real to me and yet when I watched many of the films that were based on historical events these also left me cold because it was obvious that the facts had been manipulated to produce a more entertaining story – sod accuracy. It seems like the historical novelist’s remit is to find a balance between the two, to present a story that is believable and entertaining within the bounds of known facts.
This is a good book. It is not an exciting book but it is an engrossing book. It sticks to the facts and doesn’t exaggerate them for effect. That said there were opportunities to maximise on factual events that maybe Clare didn’t capitalise on but I feel the book’s strength lies in its portrayal of real people. In an e-mail to me she wrote that she “wanted to use this story to say something about the condition of being human” and it does. It focuses on identity, national identity on the surface, but once you start to dig a little deeper there are other identities under the microscope here and the old Indian provides an excellent sounding board, not that he doesn’t have his own identity issues which he deals with in his own way. I grew rather fond of old Yeluc and would have liked more of him. Clare can take that as a request.
The book is published by Seren, Wales’ leading literary publisher, and is available from all the usual places for £7.99 or thereabouts.
Let me leave you with the official trailer for the book:
Clare Dudman was born in North Wales and educated at Leicestershire comprehensive schools, the University of Durham and King’s College London. She has a PhD in Chemistry and has worked as a postdoctoral Research Associate in UMIST, a development scientist in industry, a science teacher, a lecturer and as a creative writing tutor for the WEA and the MA in creative writing at University College Chester. She is a member of the Welsh Academy.
Her first novel was for children: Edge of Danger which won the Kathleen Fidler award. Her second novel was for adults Wegener’s Jigsaw (published as One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead in the States) which is a fictional autobiography based on the life of revolutionary scientist and arctic explorer Alfred Wegener and won an Arts Council of England writers’ award. 98 Reasons for Being, her third novel, is from all accounts out of print which is why God invented libraries.
Her current project involved an extensive research trip to China: after landing in Hangzhou she toured Shanghai and Suzhou on the east coast before heading inland to the world's most populous city, Chongqing, taking an overnight train to a remote town called Yangzhou before heading down the South China tea and Guandong and finally Hong Kong. On the way she interviewed scientists, farmers and industrialists and attended an international conference on silk.