Historical Climate Fiction: Ripping Out Earth’s Resources
Before the COVID-19 pandemic altered our lives, climate change was the issue dominating global conversation. Of course this was not a new area of focus, but there appeared to be heightened public discourse around rising seas, melting glaciers and the extinction of iconic species. Novelists have apparently responded. A CBC News article from 2019 1 pointed out that “a profound concern over the state of the planet . . . is infiltrating fiction today”, and the New Yorker goes as far as to call “cli-fi” a genre.2
Although its moniker might be a 21st-century one, cli-fi is not a new phenomenon, as readers of Jules Verne and J.G. Ballard can attest. As one would expect, most cli-fi is set in the future. However, there have also been novels published that are either partially or wholly set in the past and are underpinned by climate or environmental themes, with several notable ones released in recent years.
One that has received significant hype is Barkskins by Annie Proulx (Scribner, 2016). This novel – recently turned into a TV series – opens in the 17th century, when men from France are clearing land for farms in eastern North America. As they do so, they demonstrate an almost universal disregard for the Indigenous inhabitants of these lands, and use violent means to push whole communities out of their traditional territories. Many starve, succumb to diseases such as smallpox or are killed by the land-hungry newcomers. Most lose not only their homes but also their sense of identity.
These early European settlers and the people who followed them over the next couple of centuries viewed the forest as endless, there for them to use and tame. Some believed in a Biblical directive to cut trees down and cultivate the land. Others just wanted to make money from the timber. Their view was that Indigenous people were lazy because they seemed uninterested in subjugating the forest, failing to understand that there were benefits to living in harmony with it, that it was a source of food, shelter and medicine.
Barkskins’ narrative follows lumber barons, lumberjacks and displaced MiꞋkmaq men and women through several generations until the present day. By the 19th century, it had become clear to a few of the characters that the exploitation of the continent’s forests had serious consequences. By the 20th century, some were starting to acknowledge what their Indigenous neighbours had known all along: “The entire atmosphere – the surrounding air, the intertwined roots, the humble ferns and lichens, insects and diseases, the soil and water, weather. All these parts seem to play together in a kind of grand wild orchestra. A forest living for itself rather than the benefit of humankind.”
Proulx employs an incredible wealth of historical detail; she also describes the forests in moving prose. For these reasons, Barkskins has been described by reviewers as “grand”, “sweeping”, and “magnificent”. However, a number of reviewers have complained that it’s impossible to feel anything for the characters; by the time a reader starts to care about them, the story has moved on. It is true that there’s a constant parade of characters, but I suspect that this is the point. The author is showing us that humankind is insignificant within the context of an old-growth forest.
Another cli-fi novel where the environment is almost a character in its own right is The Overstory by Richard Powers (W.W. Norton, 2018). Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, it has received much critical acclaim. This article will mention it just briefly because it is debatably not a historical novel. Only a very small part of the story is set in the 19th and early 20th centuries; the bulk of the action takes place in the 1990s, when environmentalists were camping in redwood trees in the western United States to prevent logging companies from cutting them down. Like Barkskins, there are multiple characters and storylines to follow, meaning readers may have difficulty caring much about these fictional people, though The Guardian points out that, “Powers is . . . skilled at capturing a character, a family, a culture with a few swift brushstrokes.”3 The message of The Overstory is powerful: that we are using the planet – and trees – at a rate that is unsustainable.
The underlying theme of The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah (St. Martin’s Press, 2021) is what can happen when people attempt to use every last acre of land. In her author’s note, Hannah calls the drought of the 1930s: “the worst environmental disaster in [US] history”. Set in the “Dust Bowl” years, this novel has a clear protagonist in Elsa, who marries into a Texas farming family and embraces a life of milking cows and growing wheat, only to find herself on the road to California in search of the land of milk and honey, as so many did during the Great Depression.
Before Elsa heads west, government representatives arrive to offer advice on the family’s farm. Scientists had determined that the dust storms and complete absence of rain were caused by farmers clearing too much land in the Great Plains region. The government decided to pay farmers to leave the land fallow and allow it to regenerate, but Elsa worried her children would starve in the meantime and so left behind all she had worked for.
The Four Winds is certainly a very accessible example of cli-fi; the storytelling that has made Hannah’s previous books bestsellers is very much in evidence here. Environmental catastrophe shapes the novel and serves as a reminder of just how dependent we are on the land and on weather.
In her multi-period novel The History of Bees (Touchstone, 2017), Maja Lunde makes a statement on humanity’s desire to control the natural world and how this could lead to catastrophe. She asks readers to imagine a world without bees. Through the deft weaving together of 19th-century, present-day and very-late-21st-century storylines, she shows us how integral bees are to humankind’s ability to produce food. In 1852 Hertfordshire, William lives a largely joyless life, but his beehives ground him. It’s clear that bee society is in perfect working order, despite William’s attempt to contribute a “better” hive. His descendant, George, also finds comfort from the regular workings of the bees on his farm in the American Midwest and is horrified when, in 2007, he opens hive after hive and finds the colonies abandoned. In 2098, Tao works on a fruit-tree plantation in China where she has to climb trees and paint pollen on their flowers. Through her eyes, we learn about “The Collapse” of 2045, when all bees disappeared. In Tao’s time, people across the globe are living in abject poverty. Cities like Beijing are derelict, hospitals and libraries are no longer functioning properly, and nature appears to be reclaiming so-called civilization around the world. People have to pay for the privilege of having children.
Despite the dire tone that threads through this novel, it does end on a positive note. “As long as we have hope, we are willing to take the steps we need to make our planet better and safer for children of the future,” Lunde notes in the author interview that accompanied the edition I read. She points out that, “The three main characters are very different, live in different times and places, but have in common that they are parents filled with fear and hope, a fighting spirit, and resignation. And they all want what’s best for their kids, but don’t always know what that is.”
The History of Bees is the first novel in Lunde’s “Climate Quartet”.
In Michael Christie’s powerful novel, Greenwood (McClelland & Stewart, 2019), the underlying environmental themes are the role trees play in our lives and how their destruction will result poverty, starvation and extreme gaps in wealth. Greenwood follows a Canadian family of the same name through several generations from 1908 – when two unrelated boys survive a train crash and are named “Greenwood” after their penchant for selling freshly chopped wood – through to 2038, with the bulk of the narrative taking place in 1934. During this storyline, the impact of drought and dust storms on farming communities forms a sub-theme; although most readers of history are familiar with the situation in the US during the 1930s, few realize that Canadian communities also suffered, such as Estevan, Saskatchewan, which serves as a key location in Christie’s novel.
By 2038, Greenwood family scion Jake is living on Greenwood Island off the coast of British Columbia, trying to make a living as a tour guide for wealthy people who pay unimaginable sums of money for the privilege of viewing some of the last remaining trees on earth. We learn about “The Withering”, which happened just a few years earlier and caused many of the world’s trees to die.
Jake’s grandmother, Willow, a fervent environmentalist, mused at her lumber-baron father’s funeral in 1974: “We who rip out the Earth’s most irreplaceable resources, sell them cheap to anyone with a nickel in their pocket, then wake up and do it all over again – that could well serve as the Greenwood motto and perhaps even for [Canada] itself.”
There aren’t enough recent novels shaped around environmental themes with settings in the past to call cli-fi a trend in historical fiction. But with new releases such as The Children’s Blizzard (Delacorte, 2021) by Melanie Benjamin receiving good reviews, and continued societal concern or the state of the planet, it’s possible that authors will increasingly turn to past climate events to help us make sense of the present.
- Heather & Arizona O’Neill
“Discover the genre of cli-fi.” CBC. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/discover-the-genre-of-cli-fi-with-these-6-books-1.5162130
- Katy Waldman
“How climate-change fiction forces us to confront the incipient death of the planet.” New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/how-climate-change-fiction-or-cli-fi-forces-us-to-confront-the-incipient-death-of-the-planet
- Benjamin Markovits
“The Overstory by Richard Powers review.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/23/the-overstory-by-richard-powers-review
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Claire Morris is the HNS web features editor. She has been involved in the HNS since the very beginning, served as the managing editor of the HNS journal, Solander, from 2004 to 2009, and helped to start the HNS North American conferences.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 96 (May 2021)