Here are the occasional reflections of a joyful traveller along the strange pathways of fantasy and adventure. All my reviews are independent and unsolicited. I read many books that I don’t feel sufficiently enthusiastic about to review at all. Rather, this blog is intended as a celebration of the more interesting books I stumble across on my meandering reading journey, and of the important, life-affirming experiences they offer. It is but a very small thank you for the wonderful gifts their writers give.

Saturday 17 December 2022

Wild Song by Candy Gourlay

Cover: Leo Nicholls

A bright star on the horizon 

We are not yet quite out of 2022 and already I have found another novel for young readers destined to be one of the great books of 2023 - and beyond. Wild Song is a devastatingly important successor to Candy Gourlay’s outstanding and deservedly plaudited Bone Talk from 2018.

This one is perhaps aimed principally at YA readers. However, it is so accessible and yet so powerful that I think it will work for a very wide readership.

The history we should know 

The stortelling is superficially straightforward: a linear narration by Luki, a Filipino girl of the Bontok peoples, addressed to the spirit of her dead mother. However it is wonderfully constructed from an authorial perspective, evolving into ever richer and more thought-provoking understanding of hugely important cultural and human issues. Fiction, but based around events in US history of which many readers will have been unaware , it is a compulsively engrossing read, albeit horrifying, and, at times, heartbreaking. It is hugely impressive, not only as education about previously overlooked or distorted history, but also for our own time. It is a passionate and thoroughly justified tirade against colonialism, the subjugation and exploitation of minorities. It exposes the way so many treat with contempt and even demonise people who are different, whether in appearance, way of life or beliefs. More than anything it is about the need, the right, of all people to grow, change and move ahead without sacrificing their own identity, their cultural roots, their very integrity as human beings. It is a book that so very much needs to be read.

Human zoo

Wild Song is a recount of significant events in the life of Luki, along with a group of her people, including other principal characters from Bone Talk, although they are all now somewhat older. Following US ‘conquest’ of the Philippines, they are transported to the States to be exploited as part of a living exhibition of ‘primitive tribes’ from around the world at the  St Louis ‘World Fair’ of 1904. Canday Gourlay succeeds wonderfully in exploring major world events and appalling attitudes through the eyes and experience of this young individual, so that it remains an intensely personal narrative as well as one of global significance, Luki’s voice is beautifully caught and insight into all that happens is given the human perspective it needs to register most poignantly. Her joy, her pain, her aspirations, her learning and her recognition of the truth about the people she visits are all ours. She is a wild girl, but not in the sense of ‘wild’ the 1904 Americans used of her. Her wildness is closer to that we mean when we talk of re-wilding our planet, rediscovering what life was meant to be before some humans dehumanised it. Luki re-learns to sing her own wild song - and so must we.

Caught between worlds 

A strong thread of feminism is woven through the story and, whether in her home Bontok community, or in the America of ‘new opportunities’, Luki kicks against entrenched mores that seek to restrict severely her behaviours as a girl/woman. At the same time as she clings to many of the cultural and spiritual beliefs the are her heritage as a Bontok, she sees potential in her new surroundings, And this epitomises one of the particular strengths of this book. Luki does not represent a single-minded or prejudiced perspective, her thinking is often ambivalent. She may be an exhibit in the eyes of the Americans, but she is also an observer, and not always a hostile one. She is originally a willing participant in the invitation to travel to The States and, although ultimately appalled by the treatment of her people there, especially after she (and the readers’) make a most devastating discovery, she also sees some of the good  in it. 

‘. . . like a door had been wrenched open and a new world revealed to us. I felt like throwing my arms into the air and screaming. This is what I wanted! I wanted a chance to see this!’ (p 156)

Even when she chooses to return to her home, she has been changed by the experience. She has travelled forwards as well as backward on her journey to discover confidence in her own identity; to acknowledge her roots whilst still accepting her place in the world and her need to fight for a better one.

‘ . . .  it wasn’t about money or who deserved what or how to get more money. We were here, in America. We had seen things that we would never have seen in Bontok and none of it had to do with money. After this, how could we go back to our ordinary lives? 
     It was the one thing I knew for sure. My life was definitely never going to be the same again.’ (p 209)

Yes, the change in Luki’s life is most certainly not all for the good. However, Candy Gourlay herself, in creating Luki and  her story, is now an important agent in that vital struggle for better change 

The us in US

Damning indictment as it is, it is important that Wild Song is not seen solely as a condemnation of early 20th Century America and Americans. What is depicted here is a shameful episode in their history and reflects appalling attitudes of racial superiority. But such colonialism and its related treatment of indiginous peoples and their cultures is far from confined to The States. We English are every bit as guilty, if not more so, and the First Nation inhabitants of Africa, Australia and India, suffered equally horrendous expressions of presumed white superiority. Not to mention all the things that happened, and still happen, here. The 1904 World Fair provides a metaphor for so much more.

A voice, a song

Wild Song is a story powerful in its honesty and heartbreaking in its sincerity. At the same time it is unspeakably potent in communication of its devastating messages about the world’s treatment of ‘minority’ peoples, historically, but also, sadly, bleeding into our present. It is a vital voice for those justifiably seeking a way to be themselves, to accept and value their own cultural heritage, to sing their own song. Similarly it is a heartfelt cry for that heritage to be respected and valued in our contemporary societies and for its people to be treated with the equality that is their human right. 

Re-wilding our world is is not just an activity, it is a state of mind. Civilisation will only grow and flourish when it learns to sing a wild song. Candy Gourlay is playing a huge part in helping to lead us all towards this. Thankfully, she is not alone.