To the Islands: Randolph Stow

Randolph Stow’s novel To The Islands takes a look at the corrosive impact of colonialism through, aging, bitter missionary, Stephen Heriot, who has spent decades managing a Christian mission for ‘Indigent people’–the indigent people in this instance being Aborigines. When the novel opens, Heriot wakes up in his corrugated iron hut with its grass thatched roof. His books, detritus of his education and a reminder of his long distance past, are literally falling apart.

On the shelves of the rough bookcase, Heriot’s learning was mouldering away, in Oxford Books of this and that, and old-fashioned dictionaries, all showing more or less the visitations of insects and mildew.

There’s a symbolic significance to the books, for their decay matches Heriot’s decline. Physically, he’s aged and no longer accomplish the things he used to do, while mentally, he’s bitter, and he’s lost his sense of purpose. His wife died at the mission decades earlier, and now he’s facing the thought that he wasted his life. There’s the implicit idea that this once powerful man is in shambles. Looking in his broken mirror, “he saw himself as a great red cliff, rising from the rocks of his own ruin.”

How does a man grow old who has made no investment in the future, without wife or child, without refuge for his heart beyond the work that becomes too much for him?

Most of the other white men on the mission, in this “goldfish-bowl of existence,” are looking forward to Heriot leaving, and some think he’s gone “troppo.”  In many ways, Heriot is an embarrassment because he represents the old ways of handling the aborigines, and everyone would rather forget the past. While one character defends Heriot, placing him in the context of his times, Father Way says, ” a man who goes round spreading civilization with a stock whip gets no admiration from me.”   Heriot has requested a replacement from the regional council, but he receives a letter saying that he must remain as there is as yet no suitable candidate. And this brings in yet another idea–that Heriot, in his youth, had enough fervor, sense of purpose, or belief in his ‘mission,’ and that he was willing to sacrifice his entire life for what he believed in. Yet there’s no one to replace him; no one else has that sense of commitment.

to the islands

What drives people to leave their homes and take jobs in the remote area of Australia under such harsh, unforgiving conditions? Well religion explains some of it but there’s a also an excellent nurse who failed medical school; she’s “perhaps a fanatic of sorts, like a nun,” and a young teacher who “never intended to be involved. But the country had taken him in.” Bottom line these white workers are all driven by something to stay at the mission, but the reasons Heriot came to the mission are now absent. He’s been there too long. He’s ill and he suspects he’s dying.

Stow gives us a strong sense of life at the mission –both good and bad (with its pervasive attitudes towards the aborigines as ‘childlike’ or indigent).  A crisis erupts with the arrival of Rex, a man Heriot loathes, who’s a subversive influence on some of the younger residents of the mission. This beautifully written novel tackles huge themes of Shakespearean proportions through the story of the bitter aging missionary and his relationship with Rex. The mission has been existence for decades, and while the older residents seem more comfortable with the “indigents’ allowance,” there’s the idea, running under the surface of the story, that this system is inherently unhealthy, unproductive, and corrosive for all involved. With Rex’s unsettling presence, the established order of life at the mission is challenged.

Heriot watched the old women, across the grass at the meathouse, and thought of misery and hopelessness, of the wretched tribe of indigents. But it is their choice, their own choice…

Randolph Stow published  To the Islands when he was 22 years old. He’d worked for a period at an Anglican-run mission, and in the preface of my copy, he explains some of the changes he made from the original edition. Although the story addresses the cost of colonialism and the inherent wisdom of supporting a native population on an undignified subsistence way of life,  this isn’t a story about race as much as it’s a tragic tale of how we battle ourselves and our impulses.

Review copy.

 

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14 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Stow Randolph

14 responses to “To the Islands: Randolph Stow

  1. I’ve always seen “Heart of darkness” and “The power and the glory” at the back of this one even though there’s not the same sturm und drang. But the idea of the failed idealist, and the human consequences of passionate commitment to an idea. An extraordinary book for such a young man.

  2. Loved this one….
    And yes, 22 years old. Amazing…

  3. This sounds an incredibly powerful read and so amazing that the author managed all those big themes at such a young age.

  4. Sounds very painful, the gradual realisation that one may have waste one’s life and done more bad than good, although you set off believing the contrary… A very interesting read, by the sounds of it, on the list it goes!

  5. This is a terrible gap in my reading that I must rectify. It’s been on my virtual TBR since my teens. That’s embarrassing isn’t it?

  6. It sounds really good. I’m not sure when it’s set though.
    It reminded me a bit of Brian Moore’s Black Robe.

  7. It does sound very bleak. Black Robe is an interesting comparison there – the film has a sense of despair and futility but this sounds if anything more downbeat since Black Robe couples pointlessness with brutal violence while this sounds much bitterer (is that a word? more bitter?).

  8. I also wonder about people ready to uproot their life for an idea or an ideal. The Mormons who broke through the mountain in Utah (literally), this character, all the missionaries. It makes more sense for Catholic nuns and priests: after all, they’ve already given up a lot by giving up the chance of a family, love with a partner…
    I’m more of a Brassens advocate “Mourons pour des idées, d’accord, mais de mort lente” (“I’m OK to die for ideas, but only of slow death”)

    Like other commenters, I’m amazed at the age of the writer. How lucid to relate that way to the regrets of an ageing man.

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