A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees
The Welsh heritage of Patagonia is one of the more celebrated quirks of colonial history which first came to my attention, and, I suspect, that of many others through Bruce Chatwin’s curious and beautiful In Patagonia.
This novel is inspired by, and closely based on, the history of the settlement of Rawson, on Patagonia’s Atlantic coast, in the 1860s. It follows the fortunes of Silas and Megan Jones and their family and fellow colonists from their arrival in Argentina, but also makes good use of flashbacks to show their courtship and marriage, their sufferings en route to the new colony and their reasons for undertaking the journey. Silas’ complex and confrontational relationship with Edwyn Lloyd, the charismatic founder of the colony, powers the narrative and provides much of its dramatic tension, although the catalogue of droughts, floods and illnesses which dog the colony mean this tension rarely lets up.
Dudman writes beautifully, not just about the colonists but about the land in which they find themselves and the indigenous Tehuelche people with whom they share it. Running alongside the narrative of colonisation are lyrical passages in the voice of Yeluc, a Tehuelche shaman who befriends the settlers and helps them to survive. Ironically, just as the Welsh leave Wales in order to preserve their language and culture from the English, their eventual success in Patagonia wiped out the Tehuelche language and culture completely, a point which Dudman makes subtly in the way she constructs her novel.
A thought-provoking book, driven by powerful characterisation and profound reflection on the process of colonisation.