The Earth Cries Out by Bonnie Etherington – 2017

the earth cries outRuth is a young girl, living with her family on her grandparent’s apple orchard in Nelson, when a terrible accident tears her family apart.  Ironically it also keeps her family together, as her parents were talking divorce before the accident, but afterwards her father decides they should take their grief to Irian Jaya.  He intends for them to work on community development programmes – building a hospital, introducing rabbit breeding and avocado growing, handing out health pamphlets.  Little Ruth packs up – armed with A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of New Guinea and The Swiss Family Robinson, gifts from her grandfather “Thus armed, he could send me anywhere.”  The novel is the story of Ruth’s time in the small mountain village of Yuvut.  Set in the 1990s, the civil unrest and uneasy mix of peoples in the village echoes Ruth’s inner turmoil:  Wracked with childhood guilt about what part she may have played in the accident that took the life of her little sister, and feeling apart from her unhappy parents, she laments: “In Yuvut you would try to guess who was on whose side, but there seemed to be too many sides and no one was ever on yours”.  The small and large cruelties inflicted by people on people, by people on animals, by  people on nature, and the suffering of people at the mercy of nature – these are all described; when Ruth is in a plane looking down at what appears  to be pristine forest, she can imagine the enormous devastation man has caused to the environment and “I imagined, too, the tinier forms of life, the dancing birds of paradise, the spirits waiting at the edge of things for their time to come, waiting for the water to get low enough in the swamps and expose all of Papua’s hidden secrets: its bodies of planes, of people.”  The book also deals with the difficulties of translation; the tenuous connections between those who don’t speak the same language, or who must rely on a third person to interpret.  At one point these connections are likened to Papuan rope bridges – “The ropes sometimes broke.  But people kept crossing them anyway.”  There are inserted sections throughout the book that are named for various plants, all of them relating to the horrors that have played out in Papua.  These inserted stories are from different years and perspectives – most seemingly gathered from a later time when Ruth is working with refugees – from one of them: “We’re all just sitting with our toes dipped in that dark water and the only thing separating mad from not mad is how far we let ourselves slip in.”  The Earth Cries Out is a sad book, but I found it really compelling, and Ruth a wonderful character.


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