In the Land of the Long White Cloud
In the Land of the Long White Cloud reminded me what it was like to get lost, really lost, in a good book. This is a saga in the best sense of the word. Lark starts in England and Wales in 1852 and tells the story of two very different young women, one a lady, the other a governess, who find themselves bound to New Zealand (“the land of the long white cloud”) for equally disastrous marriages. Gwyneira Silkham, a lord’s daughter, finds herself won in a bet, her hand promised to a sheep baron’s son. Helen Davenport, her grim life as a governess stretching before her, answers an ad from a New Zealand farmer looking for a wife.
Lark recounts not just their stories over the course of the next twenty-plus years but also those of the orphan girls Helen was charged with bringing to New Zealand to be servants, their children’s futures, and the sometimes peaceful, sometimes uneasy relationship between the Maori natives and the pakeha—the colonists. And the land, which can be rocky and formidable and also breathtakingly beautiful, is as much a character as anyone else.
The book veers a little into cliché (that each woman’s marriage would be a disappointment was practically broadcast), but I hung on every page nonetheless. Lark is not overly sentimental about her characters; they’re not perfect, but they do the best they can. Neither woman’s life turns out as she imagined, but their emigration to New Zealand affords them opportunities (and hardships) they would not have experienced in their home country. As one of the very few people who didn’t have the attention span for Downton Abbey, I thought my patience for a good, long tale was lost forever. It’s not.