Monday, July 25, 2011

The Plot

You would be forgiven for thinking, like I did, upon first glancing at The Plot that this had something to do with the Tudors or Guy Fawkes. However, the subtitle quickly puts those notions to rest: A Biography of an English Acre. As someone who loves nonfiction that crosses categorizations (memoir/history/science survey) it turned out to be quite an interesting book, though in general it was a bit too compartmentalized to be my cup of tea.

The Plot itself is a small area in North Yorkshire that the author’s extraordinary father bought in the 1950s. A sculptor and a devout Catholic, he built a chapel there and was fiercely linked to the plot all his life. Unfortunately, Madeleine Bunting’s relationship with her father was adversely affected by this obsession. She takes the whole book long to come to grips with her father and to understand him, but for me, that never interfered with the rest of the book’s content. It could have been purely a book about Bunting’s attempts to know her father, but impressively it also brings in all the history related to the Plot. However, she can’t conceal her bitterness over the way the Plot worked its way into her life and broke up her parents’ marriage.

There are wonderful glimpses into the past of this area of England about which I knew almost nothing; the Scottish drovers around Scotch Corner in the 16th century had interesting lives which sometimes included them knitting as they walked along minding sheep who they drove down to London or up to Edinburgh to sell. There are moth experts in this book and shepherds who keep their dying way of life vibrant but unsentimental. William the Conqueror ravaged the area to the point that what natives were left turned to cannibalism, and the memory is still strong enough to be passed down in local lore. There are unknown tales of sikta pines and forestry panics of the 1920s and 1950s. Edwardian hunters slaughter thousands of pheasants. Cistercians died at the age of 28 because of their self-imposed harsh conditions.

But the heart of the matter is still Bunting’s father; his obsession with Catholic heroes and monks, with the cult of bravery that boys growing up, groomed for war, had in the 1940s; his lament for mechanization and the loss of the simple way of life long before vacationing in North Yorkshire became fashionable. Some of his qualities invite derision, but Bunting tries really hard to show all the factors that would have caused him to be the man he was. The Plot remains for Bunting a place she feels uncomfortable in and yet strangely drawn to.

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