Wednesday, May 23

The Day the Stones Walked

by T.A. Barron
illustrated by William Low
Philomel / Penguin 2007

There's no rhyme or reason to the fact that I love anything that has to do with Easter Island. That remote little island with the giant iconic stone heads, be they alien totems in Chariots of the Gods or the idols of a superstitious monolithic culture, I am totally fascinated by it. I may be one of the few people in the world who actually paid to see the movie Rapa Nui and didn't totally hate it. Okay, maybe a little.

If I had any clue to the whereabouts of the originals for a mini comic I once made about "The Bellybutton of the World" I'd dig it out, scan it, and prove just how much I love those solumn stony visages.

Today, however, we are dealing with a picture book about this small island in the Pacific. A boy brings home some food he's speared at the tide pools and when his mother looks up at him she sees, over his shoulder, the sky has gone a shade of green. She's seen this happen once before, long ago, and sends the boy running to the carving pits to retrieve his father and bring him safely to the caves high above the shore.

The boy's father is a lone stone cutter, perhaps the last of a vanishing breed, carefully working over the unfinished features of one of the stone giants as it lay in repose. The boy tries to warn his father but is not convinced that he should abandon his work and sends the boy on his way. Half way up to the caves the boy sees a large tidal wave has sucked the shore into dry flats and a wall of water almost as tall as the island is approaching. He runs back down to the carving pits to save his father.

The wave hits, the boys is caught up in it and he is dragged under, tangled in the seaweed and floating among the stones down near the shore. The water recedes, the boy is alive and found by his father, and life on the island will never be the same. Uh, the end.

There is an afterward that connects some limited Easter Island history with modern tsunamis and an oblique reference to the effects of deforestation and global warming. Essentially, Barron is making a case that what happened on Easter Isle is a controlled-environment version of what is currently happening on planet Earth. That the island was once a lush paradise, full of the largest palm trees on the planet, and is now practically barren speaks to what happens when a culture takes from nature with little regard to the long-term effects. These people used their trees and plants for everything -- timber, fabric, food, rope, and most importantly, for transporting their huge heads around the island -- and when the trees left so did the native birds and cover vegetation. In the end the native peoples may have cursed the gods who abandoned them for not continuing to provide -- as many today will assume that global warming is a sign of god's wrath, if they accept global warming at all -- but in the end the evidence is fairly clear.

The story itself is fine, the idea of a small island community dealing with a tidal wave makes for some pretty interesting stuff, but if you're going to use Easter Island as your base and you're going to follow it up with an authorial afterword about the environmental effects, then that's the story that should have been told. I don't know that the world is going to be clamoring for another picture book about Easter Isle anytime soon, but if so there's a relevant cautionary tale to tell that doesn't involve an act of nature to explain the tragedy of a small piece of the planet and what it portends for the rest of us.

Preachy? Perhaps, but if the author had wanted me to more favorably review his book he shouldn't have undercut his own efforts by pointing out the weakness in his own story. As it stands the stones don't really dance, and there is little mention as to why the islanders even care about them. I wonder how much I would have cared if I wasn't predisposed to liking those long-eared, thin-lipped, top-knotted dudes.

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