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REVIEW:  Tracks by Robyn Davidson

REVIEW: Tracks by Robyn Davidson

Tracks

I arrived in the Alice at five a.m. with a dog, six dollars and a small suitcase full of inappropriate clothes. . . . There are some moments in life that are like pivots around which your existence turns.

For Robyn Davidson, one of these moments comes at age twenty-seven in Alice Springs, a dodgy town at the frontier of the vast Australian desert. Davidson is intent on walking the 1,700 miles of desolate landscape between Alice Springs and the Indian Ocean, a personal pilgrimage with her dog—and four camels. Tracks is the beautifully written, compelling true story of the author’s journey and the love/hate relationships she develops along the way: with the Red Centre of Australia; with aboriginal culture; with a handsome photographer; and especially with her lovable and cranky camels, Bub, Dookie, Goliath, and Zeleika.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

The book cover and the opening line are what hooked me on reading this book. And they about say it all. The cover might be a bit misleading in that Davidson usually walked alongside her camels rather than riding one of them and they were probably not as stair step perfect in size but still the cover conveys desert journey with camels and dog. The line pretty much shows both the humor inherent in Davidson’s writing and the fact that frankly she was in no way ready for this trip when she started. Or for that matter, for a long time into the preparations.

I quickly realized that amide the chuckles there would be a lot of grim information about the Australia of 1977 – and maybe of Australia today though I sincerely hope things have changed and from what’s written in the epilogue, it seems this might be the case. Rampant misogyny, alcoholism and racism – and sometimes all 3 at once – were alive and well in Alice Springs then.

Camel handling seems to be an art crossed with a strong arm and not something I’d be looking to take up any time soon but good onya for deciding to make the dream come true. I read with fascination and horror all that’s involved with getting a trained camel to do what you want and trying to train a newbie to do the same. Not my cuppa. I can see this taking a good long while to learn and become confident with but when it’s mentioned that it’s been two years since she arrived there, I thought, “Lady it’s time to either go or get off the pot.”

And when, from what was written, she appeared to be reinventing the camel wheel, I had to wonder, “Why?” This wasn’t rocket science. This wasn’t inventing how to get to the moon. People had been saddling up camels and loading them with pack supplies for 1000s of years. Why is she seemingly contriving her own camel tack and saddles? Shed been working with 2 people for 2 years now – one an Afghani camel herder for chrissakes. I kept wondering why can’t she just look at their tack and saddles and copy them?

Then when she went to meet with National Geographic people about sponsoring the trip and she admitted to us the readers that she hadn’t plotted a route yet. I think the words “you’ve got to be fucking me” crossed my lips. Talk about babe in the desert woods. At this point, I sat down with grim determination to see this adventure, via the book, through. She was like watching a toddler walk around with a loaded gun. Would she avoid killing/injuring herself and any more animals under her care before it was all said and done?

We then started the second third of the story and the change in her was almost night and day. Now that the journey has begun, she’s almost … competent. Much more in control and less hysterical than before even though the opening stages of the journey are even more of a learning experience. What items are needed and what she should have jettisoned before even starting? What’s the best way to pack the gear and distribute the weight? The coming days pared down not only the baggage but Davidson and this is where the book gets wonderful.

In the beginning, she was often among other people: tourists, the National Geographic camera man, rangers and Aborigines. Some of them were helpful, some annoying and some transformed her. Her time with Eddie, the elder Aborigine gentleman was illuminating and from him she began to see Australia as they always have. To slip into an almost dreamlike state of existing and coexisting. But this part also kept hammering home how much colonization has almost destroyed them.

Her description of her relationship with Rick, the camera man, came to annoy me. A friend of hers points out that without his advice to seek out National Geographic’s sponsorship, her trip might not have happened. But along with the money comes the stings and while I can see that, based on her original hopes for what the journey would be for her, having him tag along and document it in pictures utterly altered things, her whingeing got on my nerves. To answer her own question, yes she got too precious about it. He was only part of the snakes in her Eden and it was never going to be as pristine as she imagined. Maybe that’s my middle age speaking to her youthful 70s idealism but get over it.

We quickly see how dependent she is on the camels and their health. But while she takes good care of them, she totally falls down on the job in another quarter. She gives fair warning of what is going to happen, right before it happens, but I was sick at heart to read what befalls one member of their little party – especially since it could have been avoided. So while the opening line makes this sound like it could be fun to read, the reality is that this was anything but a breezy jaunt across Australia.

As I was reading the final third of the book, I kept thinking that this trip was a product of its era. That it probably couldn’t be done or repeated today and the epilogue confirmed this. Regulations and the modern thirst for publicity and fame would either condemn it or the person trying it for attempting to stay below the radar – to keep a tiny bit of privacy and have the journey, external and internal, remain their own. With the internet and GPS the prep and actual travel would be inevitably changed – maybe for the better but changed all the same.

Overall, I enjoyed the journey though the prep sounded like hell at times. I hated to see the privacy and ownership of the trip drift out of her hands, hated to see her get upset about this, hated to see the worst aspects of it too. But the trip is an interesting thing to read about and see how it all came together and, in some places, fell apart. I’m basically an armchair adventuress so I’ll leave such things to others to do and the reading of them for me. B

~Jayne

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REVIEW:  Yours to Keep by Serena Bell

REVIEW: Yours to Keep by Serena Bell

Dear Serena Bell:

Despite the fact that the United States is experiencing its highest levels of immigration since the turn of the 19th/20th century, I rarely come across contemporary romance novels that feature immigrant protagonists. And given the controversial nature of immigration policy today, especially with respect to undocumented immigrants, I didn’t ever expect to see a main character from this particular group. So kudos to you for taking on this subject, in your debut novel no less. As someone who was for all intents and purposes an immigrant, is the daughter of an immigrant, and teaches immigration history and politics, there was no way I was going to pass on the chance to read this book. It wound up being a mixed bag for me, with some good parts and some pretty problematic parts.

[Note to readers: This is a long review, much longer than I usually write. There is a lot of stuff going on in this novel and I wanted to do justice to the different issues.]

Yours to Keep by Serena BellAna Travares is a smart, beautiful woman in her late twenties whose life is completely shaped by her residency status. She came to the United States when she was seven with her mother and older siblings. After her mother died of cancer less than two years after their arrival the children somehow managed to stay together, but with lapsed visas and no way to regularize their status, they spent the next 20 years living with the consequences of that situation. They continue to live together in a small apartment along with Ana’s niece and two nephews, and all the adults have jobs. Ana, although unable to go to college, has established a business of sorts, tutoring high school students in a wealthy suburb nearby and teaching ESL classes before and after work hours for other immigrants.

When the story begins, Ana’s tutoring job is in jeopardy because the sleazy new administrator at the high school is demanding that she show documentation of work status, including her social security number. Unlike many undocumented residents, Ana hasn’t taken the usual not-so-legal measures to acquire one, and she’s in the process of staving off the sleazebag’s harassing advances when they’re interrupted by our hero, Ethan Hansen. Ethan is a widower with a teenage son who desperately needs a Spanish tutor, and before you know it, Ana has a new client and she and Ethan are falling in lust.

I liked Ana’s character quite a bit. She’s carved out a life for herself despite the structural career limitations she faces, and she has a good relationship with her sister, Cara. She’s paranoid about having her status discovered (which is understandable), but she’s not apologizing for it all the time or completely cowed down by it. Although the book makes Ana’s residency status the central focus of her life, that choice doesn’t make her as one dimensional a character as she could have been. Her interactions with Theo are warm and realistic, and I enjoyed the glimpses into her home and work life.

Ethan, on the other hand, was much less appealing to me. He’s trying to be a good father to Theo and mostly succeeding, and we are shown that he is a conscientious pediatrician. But he doesn’t have much of a personality; he watches football and hangs out with his brother. There just wasn’t much there as far as he was concerned. I could see how someone in his position could seem appealing to Ana, but I didn’t see what made him individually so appealing that she overrode her own caution in his case. He felt very reactive and conventional to me, and while I can see how conventionality can be appealing to someone in a precarious position, it’s not a great characteristic for a leading man.

In addition, I found Ethan’s backstory hard to believe from his first appearance. A prosperous pediatrician and a single parent who is clearly devoted to his son, Ethan is somehow still unmarried after seven years. He has no visible support system to help him take care of Theo, and his very nice parents don’t make an appearance until the last quarter of the book. He’s that rare pediatrician who never seems to be on call. Generally, women either ignore him or are married and frustrated and therefore hit on him. Really? A nice doctor who teaches his son to put the toilet seat down isn’t appealing to non-predatory, non-frustrated women?

The lack of a support network is glaring in Ana’s case. Ana and her family have in their lives no other extended family members, no one from their home town in the Dominican Republic, no immigrant friends who are in a better legal and financial position than they are. This is despite the fact that Massachusetts, where the story is set, has the fourth largest Dominican population in the US. I understand that this setup is designed to throw the hero and heroine together, and it happens in a lot of romance novels, but in the case of these particular backstories it seems even more unrealistic than usual. Neither Ana nor Cara seem to have Dominican friends. Ana’s brother Ricky has one friend who may or may not deal drugs, and who may or may not be interested in Cara, but who is definitely somewhat thuggish. There is some thoughtful acknowledgment of intra-cultural race issues within the Dominican community, but that and a few recipes are about all we learn of Ana’s native culture.

Although the book is set in a major metropolitan area, there are very few immigrants woven into the story. The wealthy suburb where Ethan lives and Ana tutors apparently has no immigrants (undocumented or otherwise): no nannies, no cleaners, no yard help. This absence is especially surprised given the unflattering depictions of most of the wives and mothers Ethan interacts with; if they’re so bored, fashion-obsessed, and predatory, who’s doing the work of keeping their homes? The transnational nature of immigrant lives is completely absent from this narrative, too; no one calls family and friends in their home country, or sends money, or communicates in any other ways, despite the fact that Ana’s family must be relatively well off on her father’s side.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that no one apart from Ana is drawn with much depth or sympathy. The “villain” who sets Ana’s problems in motion is introduced briefly and he’s one-dimensional. The native-born supporting characters, even the ones who want to help Ana and her family, are portrayed as well-meaning but clueless. This would be OK if they didn’t turn out to be the people who provide Ana with the solutions to her problems. Ana’s character projects agency, but in the end she is bailed out by other people. The other undocumented people don’t have agency, and the characters who do have agency come across as not very competent, or oblivious to the problems of undocumented residents, or self-absorbed. This creates a disconnect between how the characters appear on page and what their roles in the plot are.

Back to the story: Ana and Ethan stave off their mutual attraction for a short time but then give in to it. The sex scenes are well written and advance the plot. Ethan is willing to have Ana stay over and get close to Theo awfully fast for someone who has steadfastly refused to do so for the previous seven years, but I went with it. But while their scenes together are engaging, I didn’t get a sense of what made them shift from lust to love. Their journey is complicated by Ana’s status and Ricky’s opposition to Ethan, which sets up the major conflict they have to overcome to get to their HEA. I haven’t run across any cases where an undocumented person’s family has been opposed to marriage to an eligible, professional citizen, but I suppose it’s possible. Equally implausibly, no one thinks that Ana might be taking advantage of Ethan for longer than about five minutes, even though the two have known each other for less than a month.

In the last third of the book the action ramps up and lands firmly in melodrama territory, then ends in a sugar-coma-inducing ending and epilogue. Neither was particularly believable, and the most melodramatic moment was telegraphed several times during the course of the plot. I could have lived with that, but what really bothered me was that all of the Dominican characters are saved by the white, native-born characters. Ethan saves Ana not once but twice, and for good measure he saves a couple of other members of her family (literally or financially). Everything that non-citizens in this story gain is through the largesse of the more fortunate US-born citizens around them. This portrayal does a disservice to the extent to which immigrants, legal or not, help themselves and each other.

There is also a recurring emphasis on how Ana and her family became undocumented that made me uncomfortable, and I’m pretty sure it’s incorrect to boot. I’ll put it under a spoiler cut because the information dribbles out over the course of the book and the final portrait that emerges comes quite late. And I probably go on about immigration issues for much longer than most readers are interested in, so click at your own peril.

[spoiler] Ana and other characters repeatedly stress that the family arrived with valid visas but then overstayed those visas, failed to renew them, and lost their status. The failure to renew is attributed to Ana’s mother’s illness and death. There are a number of problems with this explanation. First, it implies that coming on a legal visa and overstaying is somehow more legitimate than arriving without valid visas. But it doesn’t matter how children acquire their undocumented status; they’re children at the mercy of adult decisions, and they shouldn’t be treated as culpable whether they overstay or walk across the border, whether they lose legal status or never had it in the first place. That’s one of the key points of the DREAM Act, that children shouldn’t be punished for adult behavior (despite being set around 2010, the book never refers to any of the current immigration controversies or legislative efforts).

As for overstaying v. arriving without documentation, I’m very glad to see overstaying highlighted here, because many people assume all undocumented residents crossed a border without proper visas, but overstaying isn’t ethically superior to crossing. They’re both the same kind of legal violation, and they’re treated much the same way.

Second, the explanation for lapse of status doesn’t work. Ana tells Ethan that they came on derivative visas because her father was coming to the US to take a position as a college professor. They came first and waited, but their father never came, changing his mind and abandoning the family. But if he never showed up, his visa (most likely an H1-B), would have been revoked and his family would have had to return to the Dominican Republic. Their visas would only have been valid on the condition that he took the job, a condition that was never fulfilled. Therefore, they didn’t have a legal right to stay in the US without Ana’s father. If they intended to conform to the law (and the book is implicitly praising them for this), they should have returned in the first few months, well before Ana’s mother’s illness.

Finally, spouses on derivative visas cannot legally work in the US (except under very specific conditions that don’t appear to have been met in this case). So how did they support themselves for the year or so that they were in the US before Ana’s mother became ill? And why did no one come and take them home when they were all alone, especially since Ricky, the eldest and the de facto head of the family, was unhappy and having trouble adjusting? They couldn’t get in touch with their father, but they had other relatives and given their father’s profession, other relatives were unlikely to be so poor as to be unable to help.

[/spoiler]

There are also some throwaway lines that made me flinch. More than once Ethan comments on Ana’s excellent English, in terms of both her facility with the language and her accent.

With her voice, creamy calm and cool, containing only the slightest trace of her native island, the slightest hint that English was not the only language she’d ever known.

Hello, she’s been in the US since she was seven. It’s not a huge accomplishment to be fluent in a language you’re educated in and surrounded by. This is the kind of thing well-meaning but oblivious people say to immigrants all the time. At one point Ethan realizes how prejudiced he sounds:

What was wrong with him that he hadn’t put the pieces together? It was the power of denial, that’s what it was. And, he admitted, the skill with which she spoke English. People like her—God, had he thought those words?—were supposed to be barely bilingual. Barely literate. Not articulate, not skilled teachers, not well read. His prejudices had snared him.

At least he realizes those are prejudices, and presumably he realizes he is wrong about what “people like her” are like. But at the end of the book he’s doing it again:

“You’re beautiful and funny and sexy, and you have a better grasp of English than people I’ve known who’ve been speaking it their whole lives.”

Enough already.

I should add that there is quite a bit of Spanish sprinkled throughout the book, but since I don’t speak Spanish I can’t evaluate whether it was accurate or not.

I might have been able to recommend the book if the romance had been stronger. But while Ana was appealing, Ethan didn’t have much going for him, and hot sex scenes can’t make up for a drip of a hero. Grade: C-/D+

~ Sunita

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