‘An air of urgency and realism’ – A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees by Clare Dudman

It’s not hard to imagine the overwhelming sense of horror the first Welsh settlers must have felt standing full of hope on deck of The Mimosa gazing across to the shore as they arrived in Patagonia to start a new life. Enticed by promises that a land ‘of milk and honey’ awaited them across the Atlantic they had embarked on the long, gruelling sea journey aboard the converted tea clipper from Liverpool only to discover it was all lies and nothing like they imagined.
 
The year is 1865. It’s winter and faced with arid desert instead of the lush green country they had been looking forward to Silas James with his family and a hundred fellow countrymen have no option but to begin building themselves shelters and a place to gather as a community. The unyielding land offers them no food and after a year they are practically starving, but still Edwyn Lloyd, an upright, snappily dressed chap who has appointed himself their leader, maintains the Lord is looking after them and that salvation is just around the corner. He refuses to take any blame for the lies which resulted in their plight.
 
Unbeknown to them they have a guardian in the shape of Yeluc an old Indian shaman belonging to the Tehuelche tribe who has been watching them. When they are at their most desperate he sends a wild dog to them who leads them to food. One day Yeluc, accompanied by his wife, Seannu, and her two sisters, visits the village which the community has establish and after some trepidation on both sides they gradually begin to form a friendship which is to last for some years. Yeluc teaches the men to hunt the local wildlife while his wife and her sisters instruct the women in finding and preparing herbs.
 
Their crops dying in the dry, unfertile conditions only exacerbates the uneasy relationship between Silas and Edwyn. The rest of the colonists, too, are increasingly suspicious of the latter’s motives to bring them to this part of the world with only Jacob, the minister, still on his side. Feeling his presence is no longer tenable Edwyn eventually makes his wife’s poor health an excuse to leave for Buenos Aires. For Silas and his wife, Megan, life is perhaps hardest of all. They have lost two of their children and when yet another harvest is ruined he brings the community together to discuss whether to stay or to try and find another place in which to begin again. Silas and three other men are elected to make the voyage to Buenos Aires to meet with the Minister of the Interior there. Imagine their surprise when they discover Edwyn Lloyd sitting in his office. He begs them to give the Chubut valley another chance and very reluctantly the men agree.
 
When new supplies from Buenos Aires also bring seeds it is Megan who hits upon the idea of channelling sea water to improve irrigation. This being the answer to a successful crop Silas and his wife assume superior status amongst the settlers. The colonists’ lot finally appears to be improving. For Silas, however, the tragedy and pain of losing his wife and newborn daughter still lie ahead.
  
Any Cop?: This book is full of finely drawn characters, vivid enough to almost jump out from the page. Clare Dudman pulls the reader into their lives until the hardship and misery they experience is practically palpable. Although based on real historic events and people the author has lifted only a few of the details, turning them into a work of fiction that is all her own. Her extensive research into the region and the period in which the story takes place gives the novel an air of urgency and realism that makes it a gripping read. 

Carola Huttmann

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