Okay, we’re going to do a quick run-through and then begin thoughts.
This week’s book is Mary Austin’s Land of Little Rain, published as a series of articles in The Atlantic Monthly and then as a collection in 1903. Ms. Austin and her writing were adored by many: Ansel Adams (who she did a collaboration with), Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, and basically entire early 1900s literary set.
I’m going to get something out of the way before we begin.
Amazon ranks this book in its second category at #1448 in Books > Travel > United States > West > Pacific.
The Library of Congress classifies this book as “1. California — Description and travel; 2. Natural History — California; 3. California — History, local.”
I did a bunch of research before selecting this book. I weeded through a few dozen books with female authors set before 1940. I was certain that this book was perfect: a travel book by a respected female author set in the late 1800s, early 1900s in California–my home state.
…this book is not a travel book.
No travel takes place in this book. None.
This book is a collection of literary essays focusing on natural history and biology. I absolutely do not understand why this was classified by the freaking Library of Congress as, primarily, a travel book.
I hate this. I really do. The travel genre is, as far as my little research has shown, so messed up. A book about France is a travel book if anyone reads it who is not from France (otherwise, it’s a history book or a culture book). A book about a person traveling through France is a travel book. A book about French history can be considered a travel book, if it is marketed as such or a walking tour is inserted somewhere in it. A beautifully written book about one’s adventures renovating a house and eating in a small town in France is a travel book.
I refuse to classify these all as travel books. They’re not. Some are, some aren’t. And going into a bookstore or library and digging for fifteen minutes into their travel section without being to find an actual travelogue… is frustrating. Having to read the back of each book to determine what kind of “travel book” it is… is really frustrating.
Why is this such a mess? Does no one care?
I asked my best friend why this was. He asked me to name five successful modern travel writers (which I did, and he was mildly floored), then told me that travel writing isn’t a big enough seller to warrant bothering with it.
Anyway, I’m sure I will engage in this rant at least twelve more times on this blog, so let’s start talking about this travelless travel book.
Land of Little Rain, as I mentioned, is a literary study in biology and natural history. It is written with a heavy hand by someone who was clearly more scientist than author.
Mary Austin fans, stop your hand-wringing, please.
Her sentences are… trying to find the right metaphor, please hold…
Her sentences are obvious. There’s little deftness to them, though others might disagree. With good authors, I believe, you don’t see their inner workings. The sentence is magic. With Austin, you can see the machinery behind it.
Which makes things… awkward.
And the entire book thus becomes awkward because there is zero letting up on the part of Ms. Austin. Paragraphs are long, sentences are long, syllable counts rarely stray from within the three to five range, and humor is sparse (though occasionally there).
She also writes without a real point of view. It’s not third person, second, or first. Sometimes a sentence will sneak in that has an “I” in it, but most of the time it’s a roving god-eye–indifferent and totally without investment, even when Austin herself indicates passion for a subject.
This book was the shortest of the five books I selected for my “historical travelogues written by women” section, yet it took me the second greatest length of time to read because her language was so heavy. (The one that took me the longest was Mary Kingsley’s, which was a good three hundred+ pages longer than Land of Little Rain.)
“For all the toll the desert takes of a man it gives compensations, deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of stars. It comes upon one with new force in the pauses of the night that the Chaldeans were a desert-bred people. It is hard to escape the sense of mastery as the stars move in the wide clear heavens to risings and settings unobscured. They look large and near and palpitant; as if they moved on some stately service not needful to declare. Wheeling to their stations int he sky, they make the poor world-fret of no account. Of no account you who lie out there watching, nor the lean coyote that stands off in the scrub from you and howls and howls.”
That was an easier paragraph of hers to read. Try this one:
“When the rain is over and gone they are stirred by the instinct of those that journeyed eastward from Eden, and go up each with his mate and young brood, like birds to old nesting places. The beginning of spring in Shoshone Land–oh the soft wonder of it!–is a mistiness as of incense smoke, a veil of greenness over the whitish stubby shrubs, a web of color on the silver sanded soil. No counting covers the multitude of rayed blossoms that break suddenly underfoot in the brief season of the winter rains, with silky furred or prickly viscid foliage, or no foliage at all. They are morning and evening bloomers chiefly, and strong seeders. Years of scant rains they lie shut and safe in the winnowed sands, so that some species appear to be extinct. Years of long storms they break so thickly into bloom that no horse treads without crushing them. These years the gullies of hills are rank with fern and a great tangle of climbing vines.”
It’s like… holy shit, we’d like to breathe at some point in this narrative, if that’s okay. Her adjectives run amok, her subjects change not paragraph to paragraph, but sentence to sentence. This paragraph alone starts with the migratory habits of the Shoshone people, moves to the seasonal change of land, which moves to waxing poetic about flowers in said land, which moves to information of their day blooming habits, then the impact of water on their entire lives, then to the current state of the Shoshone land gullies and how they have ferns and vines (not the flowers we had been talking about) overflowing them.
In sum, we started this paragraph about the Shoshone people and ended it about ferns.
This is almost every damn paragraph.
Maybe I would have liked it more if her information was better organized. She was so busy leading herself from topic to topic within her paragraphs that I never felt as though she was taking me/the uneducated reader into account. It’s like she wanted to educate the reader, but didn’t know how or didn’t want to slow down.
I definitely would have enjoyed it (at all) if the reader was given a break from the continuous lyricism. On reading the first two pages, you’re going, “Hey, this is pretty!” but by page twenty-five you’re sitting there with this, “Oh, fuck me” look on your face.
Anyhow, if you want to read a California travel book, don’t read this one. However, if you want to read an unending stream of poetry on California deserts and their people in the late 1800s, this is a winner.