“Look.” Mahina pointed at the sea below them. She spun slowly in a circle. ‘’Horizon. All around.” It was true; for an entire three hundred and sixty degrees, Greer could see the hazy line of ocean meeting sky. This, then, was the grandeur. Other sights were of things: monuments, snowcapped mountains. This view was one of absence: a horizon unblemished. (Easter Island by Jennifer Vanderbes – p396)
Rano Kao crater on Easter Island. Image courtesy of Professor X via Wikimedia Commons
Easter Island is a long way away.
Even if you lived on Pitcairn Island, Easter Island’s closest neighbor, you would be more than 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) away.
Because, dear Packabookers, this is one fascinating island. In fact, National Geographic uses adjectives like “legendary” and “enigmatic” to describe it and who am I to argue with that?
Not only is Easter Island, or Rapa Nui to give it its Polynesian name, shrouded in intrigue – it has the most amazing gigantic statues you’ve ever seen dotted along its coast and nobody knows the details of how they got there. It has a vast network of caves, some only recently discovered, a writing system no-one has been able to decipher and the island was once apparently filled with all manner of trees and land birds which mysteriously disappeared several hundred years ago.
There’s definitely a novel in there somewhere – and Jennifer Vanderbes appears to have found it, giving us a story of love, betrayal and intellectual pursuit in the process.
Vanderbes takes us to Easter Island during two different time periods.
In 1913, a young Englishwoman called Elsa, her much older academic husband Edward, and her intellectually disabled sister Alice set off on an expedition to study the island’s culture, history and most enduring legacy, the moai — the more that 800 monolithic rock statues that represent the ancestors of the Rapanui people. While many moai stand majestically on stone platforms with their backs to the ocean, others lie fallen on the ground, or have never even been moved from the quarry in which they were carved.
“Dozens more toppled moai littered the coast below. From a distance, some simply looked like rocks. Through her binoculars, though, the slope of the shoulders and the indentation of the eyes fixed to the ground became clear. The twenty-foot statues of volcanic tuff had all been carved with identical features — they looked like slender giants with huge rectangular heads. They were neither lifelike nor ornate, but the size of them and the sheer number were impressive…Carving hundreds of stone giants, then positioning them along the island’s coast — impossible to imagine.” (p113)
Sixty years later Dr. Greer Farraday, one of the world’s foremost experts on pollen, also travels to Easter Island (this journey is by plane, so its quite a bit quicker than Elsa’s year-long adventure!). She’s hoping that by taking core samples of the earth, she will find pollens that reveal clues as to how an island which was once filled with trees had became almost barren.
Although they live more than half a century apart, both women are doing their best to get to the bottom of the island’s mysteries, while at the same time trying to escape the academic dominance of their husbands and be acknowledged for their own scientific contributions – which are indeed hefty. I especially enjoyed Elsa’s determination to decipher the ronorongo writing/symbol system carved on wooden tablets throughout the island, despite her lack of formal training in this area.
“The tablet could record a genealogy, a legend, a codification of ancient law. It might help unravel the story of this island. If she can learn to read it, or grasp some small part of it, it will mean all her choices have served some higher purpose… She is thankful, now, for the distance from England, from scholars, from those qualified to take on this job. She knows it’s not the kind of project for a former governess, even the daughter of a professor. But she is here. And what, after all, is better than opportunity and desire?” (pp208-209)
Today, only about two dozen objects with rongorongo appear to have survived, none of which are on Easter Island itself. It seems as if the wooden tablets were a favorite souvenir for various ship captains and foreign clerics over the years, and the local people themselves may have used them for firewood after those who could read them were captured or killed by Peruvian slave traders and the small pox they so generously gave to the islanders. I told you there was a lot of story behind this island!!
This novel is beautifully written and even though I sometimes found myself glossing over the science, I was intrigued by how much history can be learned from a few specks of pollen.
What to do on Easter Island
Of course – if you happen to be heading off to Easter Island for a visit anytime soon, Vanderbes’s novel should be compulsory reading.
Seeing the moai for yourself would be enthralling no matter what the circumstances, but it could only be enhanced by having read this book, and shared in the experience as one of Greer’s fellow scientists attempts to re-enact the moving of the statues from the quarry where they were carved, to the island’s edge up to six miles away.
But the moai are not all there is to see on Easter Island. There are white, sandy beaches as well as opportunities for scuba diving and snorkelling. And if you are feeling particularly adventurous, you could consider exploring the caves – though you may want to take a local with you, it would be pretty easy to get lost in there.
“Sliding forward, Greer saw a small crack in the face of the rock, a sliver of an opening. Of course, a cave. The whole island was perforated with relics of its volcanic past: lava tubes left by the magma that flowed thousands of years earlier. Beneath the yellow grass, beneath the basalt, these caves formed a subterranean world of elaborate passageways hidden from view, littered with the skeletons of ancient islanders.” (p117)
Meet Hoa Hakananai’a
For those of us who can’t get to Easter Island (which now belongs to Chile in case you were wondering) in the near future, perhaps you can do your own bit to track down the remaining rongorongo. I found it surprisingly difficult to find out this information on the internet, so thought I’d take a stab in the dark and try the British Museum, given that it has a pretty good record of ‘acquiring’ extremely important artefacts from other people’s countries. Bingo! Not only does it have a rongorongo tablet – it has somehow managed to obtain a moai of its own. His name is Hoa Hakananai’a and appears to be quite an imposing character. Goodness knows how the crew of the English ship HMS Topaze managed to get all four tons of him onboard in 1868, but it seems they did.
I’m now very anxious to meet him, so intend to take a trip to the British Museum sometime soon. I will of course update you when I do!
Have a read of Easter Island. It’s a fascinating novel, and I hope there are more to come from this great location. I, for one, want to know more about the Peruvian slave traders and their dastardly deeds with smallpox….