A much anticipated sequel to Through the Lonesome Dark, By the Green of the Spring takes our three young people: Otto, Clem and Pansy on with the lives that hung in a troubling denouement at the end of the first book. There is also Lena, Pansy’s daughter, who takes up the story of her parents’ lives through a child’s eyes.
Again, I am unsettled all the way through. It is undoubtedly a love story (and of all forms of love, to me unrequited is the most poignant), but the theme of love is explored in different ways, with forgiveness, acceptance and understanding playing a very beautiful (if slightly unbelievable?) base of loving relationships.
The first part of the book is a shameful revelation of our historic treatment of ‘enemy aliens’ during WWI, as Otto, a pacifist and naturalised New Zealander of German descent, is interned with his compatriots on Somes Island (as it was then known). The men are forced to abandon their families to hostile communities with no support, and receive no communication from outside, while being subjected to brutal treatment from a sadistic commander. Otto, hero of book one, doesn’t get his heroes dues here, there is nothing as predictable as a happy ending. Otto grew up in Blackball, his mother, his love and his (unknown) child are there and, of anywhere in the world, he deserves to call Blackball home. But the world is divided into ‘us’ and ‘them’, and Otto is definitively put into the ‘them’ basket. He considers the fact that, as he is not welcome in New Zealand, Germany must, in fact, be the only place he is entitled to call home. It is a weird thing, this belonging business: is it an invented construct to keep people in their places or is it something real that we instinctively should know – and is the ‘pull of home’ (used ad infinitum as a theme in novels) the same as the ‘push off home’ of the immigrants here? Will there come a time when we are all sent back to whence we came? This rattles me.
This theme of where we come from continues in the second part of the story with Lena, Otto and Pansy’s child. She grows up believing Clem is her father and believing she knows who she is and where she belongs and then she has to reevaluate this over and over again. She’s a lucky girl though, surrounded by such a kind family that she can accept these changes, and when she’s ready she is able to go out into the world with confidence: who she is and where she comes from might be sightly complicated, but it all comes from a place of love. Nice kid, sparky and smart.
I admired Pansy’s character in the first book, this clever, calculating young girl who tackles huge problems and makes the best of things. She still has this attitude as a woman – this no-looking-back acceptance of life, which perhaps deserves our admiration, although the romantic in me dies with her choices.
Again, with this book we are asked to consider the issues faced in the first decades of the 1900s in New Zealand, of pacifism (military and domestic), class, and knowing what defines us.
After Through the Lonesome Dark I was optimistic that we’d grown up as a society. But here’s a history that makes me feel uncomfortable and ashamed and I’m afraid the underlying issues of belonging translate easily into the modern day. We still constantly divide and judge, have our tribal ‘ins’ and ‘outs’.
We’ve got to get better at this stuff.
Read Through the Lonesome Dark first to understand the dynamics of these characters. Both great reads.