Savage Lands by Clare Clark

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Savage Lands by Clare Clark

Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Elaine Dingsdale
Reviewed by Elaine Dingsdale
Summary: A graphic description of the early French settlers in the early 1700s in Louisiana.Focusing on several central figures, this follows their struggles with the inhospitable landscape, and at times,aggressive natives, and also their emotionally and cultural struggles to wrest a new lifestyle so far removed from the France of the time.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: March 2010
Publisher: Harvill Secker
ISBN: 978 - 1846553516

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The novel begins with one of the central characters - Elisabeth - preparing to leave her home in France, and embark upon a ship to take her to America - to meet and marry a complete stranger. At this time there were literally only a few hundred settlers, so potential wives were shipped in along with other necessities! She is very much in two minds about the entire venture - apprehensive, yet more than a little excited at the prospect of her new life. The voyage doesn't begin particularly well for her, as she feels isolated from the other girls. A voracious reader, she has packed her trunk with books as opposed to the more conventional linens and this immediately sets her apart.

On disembarkation, the girls are shocked and dismayed at their new home - it had been advertised to them as being the proverbial land of gold and honey - not a mud swamped backwater, surrounded by a combination of friendly and aggressive native tribes, coupled by English garrisons which did not prioritise keeping the peace. Nonetheless, within a few months most are married and are making the best of their new lives. Elisabeth marries Jean Claude. Initially he appears a good match (or,the best of a bad lot?!), and clearly does have some very tender and caring feelings towards her. However, we soon see that he is an early day wheeler and dealer, so problems will soon arise. Into this relationship is also introduced a young lad left in a native settlement as a type of spy, whom Jean Claude befriends.

Starting with the characters... Elisabeth was very well crafted, and whenever she appeared, I found myself reading with interest and concern. Ahead of her time in many respects, a born teacher and philosopher, with more than a passing interest in human rights, she came across as a very real character, plucked from her environment and making the best she could of it. However, she appeared to be quite a loner - which I found hard to believe - in order to survive, surely more interaction with the village they set up, would have been necessary?

Perhaps her character bordered on the aloof, but it would have been good to have seen it develop beyond her involvement with teaching and midwifery. She appeared to have no friends nor confidants - such a shame that this wasn't developed, allowing her character to interact more with her compatriots. Learning about the daily trials and tribulations of setting up a new community from scratch, in general, and for her in particular, would have been welcome - but it was sadly lacking at times.We were offered occasional insights - but fewer detailed descriptions than I would have expected.

Jean Claude was rather an enigma - as indeed was Auguste, the lad whom he befriended. I found I wasn't terribly interested in their conversations and relationship - necessary to move the plot forward, so it formed a vital part of the book. But interest flagged somewhat when moved away from Burnt Canes (the village) - perhaps it was too big a canvas. The savage lands of the title physically at least wasn't accorded too much detail. There were incidents reported, and the landscape itself was well described. But somehow, it didn't come across as being as savage as it would have been to the few people around at this time!

The true savagery appeared in the emotions of the characters - whether Elisabeth's attempts to make a home, Jean Claude's duplicities - or Auguste's misplaced affections - this is where the novel truly succeeds. Having said that, the author is much, much better with the female characters - the males quite bored me! Whereas the relationship between Elisabeth and her adoptive native daughter was moving in the extreme, and shows the true depth and breadth of this author's talents.

The plot was interesting depicting as it did, the tensions - and friendships - between the native populations and the incomers. Playing this all out against a wider canvas was a good move, and gave us some idea as to the sheer vastness of the area in question - apparently stretching as it did from the mouth of the Mississippi for three thousand miles north, taking in the present day states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota, as well as parts of Canada! All of this inhabited by a few hundred intrepid souls, and native Americans.

Tragically the area chosen for the settlements was poor, in terms of what could be grown there, so the newcomers had to trade with the Indians and traders from Canada. Add to this, the fact that the incomers were not farmers - they were poor and unskilled city dwellers, who had been led to believe that they would find their fortune in this new land - a potent mix for any author to tackle, and Ms Clark moves well between this larger picture and the birth of the small village.

This was an extremely well written - and apparently very well researched novel, covering a time and a place about which I knew nothing whatsoever. If you do decide to read this book, please begin at the back - where the author has most usefully added a good and precise resume of the history of the French settlers. I was delighted to learn from there that she had based the novel around some real characters. Obviously most of the events concerning them are fictionalised, I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.as so few details exist as to their lives - but it was a nice touch, and ensured them a degree of posterity, speaking out to us as they have done across the years.

So, overall, this was a very satisfying read. Whether learning and exploring the land of the time, or watching and empathising with the settlers struggles, this is a rewarding and engrossing read.Perhaps the focus on the characters' feelings and states of mind detracted somewhat from the physical privations of the environment - but striking a balance between the two, could not have been easy, and so an enhanced focus on one facet was almost inevitable.

The conclusion to all of this was not too surprising - all the loose ends were neatly tied up satisfactorily, and any questions which we may have had, were answered. But I think it has been left sufficiently open ended for the author to return at some stage and pick up Elisabeth's tale - along with that of little chickweed': please Ms Clark - it would make a wonderful sequel!

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals then we think you might also enjoy The Book of Fires by Jane Borodale.

Buy Savage Lands by Clare Clark at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Savage Lands by Clare Clark at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Savage Lands by Clare Clark at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Savage Lands by Clare Clark at Amazon.com.


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