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Book Review: Nation By Terry Pratchett

When I think back on the version of history that I learned from attending school and from reading I can't decide which I find more amazing; the conceit of Europeans to believe that they were doing things first or that supposedly rational and intelligent people accepted those facts without question. Even as they traversed the globe discovering new people and evidence of ancient civilizations in countless places European explorers, and subsequently historians, remained unshakeable in their belief that nobody before them could have possibly been capable of doing the things they did.

Even in the twentieth century when Thor Heyerdahl was able to prove, by successfully recreating their voyages, that earlier cultures had accomplished many of those feats long before Europeans, people were, and are, still reluctant to accept that we weren't the first. Unfortunately quite a bit of that reluctance is based on the attitude that before contact with us, everybody were just savages who couldn't possibly have been sophisticated enough to build boats sturdy enough for ocean travel, let alone navigate them across the ocean and back again.

It was during the height of Britain's colonial rule in the 19th century that the term "White Man's Burden" was coined. The great burden that the Empire shouldered in those days was the task of bringing the light of "civilization" to all those poor misguided dark skinned people around the world. Of course you couldn't expect miracles, but it was at least hoped they could be taught English and to put pants on every so often, especially in mixed company.
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In his most recent release, and his first for young audiences, Nation, published by Harper Collins, Terry Practchett has not only created a wonderful tale of self discovery, he rebukes those histories of our childhood that had us believing nothing of importance happened before the white man appeared on the face of the earth. With a remote South Pacific archipelago as its location, and an alternate 19th century as the reality, Nation is the story of two young people from vastly different backgrounds thrown together by nature and what they experience together.

Mau was no longer a boy, as was proven by his having survived his time alone on Boy's Island. However instead of his heading home to the island home of his people for his celebration feast, the world had something far different in store for him. A tsunami wiped out the entire population of his island, destroying his whole nation, and leaving him entirely alone - or so he thinks. Unknown to him the storm that sent his people away brought him Ermintrude Fanshaw (the Honourable Miss) who is 139th in succession to the throne of England, via the ship Sweet Judy that the wave had picked up and planted on his home island.

While its true that Ermintrude, who would much rather be called Daphne thank you very much, must face up the fact that nothing in her previous life has prepared her for being stranded on a desert island, her plight is nothing compared to what Mau has to overcome. One of the first tasks he has to undertake upon his return to his home is burying all of his former friends and family by dragging their bodies into the sea and weighing them down with stones so they will sink. What kind of Gods are his that they would allow everyone to be killed? He wants nothing to do with any of them any more. In fact if not for Daphne he might have surrendered to death instead of having to cope with the sense of loss and betrayal.

As the days pass and the two young people establish their new home they begin teaching each other bits and pieces of their respective languages and how to survive. Once they are able to light a fire, other refugees start to trickle in attracted by the smoke and the knowledge that this island has always been favoured by the Gods. The newcomers are shocked by Mau's attitude of feeling betrayed by the Gods and come to think of him as a demon, At the same time though they can't help but respect him for his ability to find ways of taking care of them. Who else would think of attempting to milk a pig in order to feed a starving baby?
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However it falls to Daphne to discover the most amazing thing about the island and its history. She convinces Mau that he must uncover the "Grandfather's cave" where all the old warriors of the tribe were laid to rest. With the help of a crow bar that was part of the tool kit on the Sweet Judy they are able to roll back the the cap stone and aside from discovering the corpses of many generations of men, they discover a chamber depicting information and technology that the people had known about at one time. There's even a map of the heavens showing various planets marked out in glass and gold on the ceiling.

As far as Daphne is concerned the chamber of the ancestors proves that at one time the people of Mau's nation had been great seafarers and had travelled around the world long before any other people. It's this discovery that she uses when the inevitable happens and she is "rescued", to convince her father that Mau's island should be left alone and deserves not to conscripted into the British Empire. Unfortunately, along with her rescue comes a return to reality, and the realization that the two friend must separate as Daphne is needed back in her old life, as much as the island needs Mau.

Nation by Terry Pratchett is a wonderful book for many reasons but what I found to be most compelling was the way in which he brings to life the changes that each of his two main characters goes through. Not only does it make for a more interesting story that way, as it maintains our interest in Mau and Daphne far more than is usual in a book written for young people, but it also serves as an example to those reading of the benefits of being open to new ideas.

The idea that this supposedly primitive island nation had at one time travelled the world is not at all far fetched, as it has already been proven that many of the Polynesian and South Pacific nations had at one time been great sea farers. By making this a key element of the story Pratchett is opening his reader's eyes to the fact that Europeans were not the first great explorers of the world and that we need to be careful in making judgements on a people simply because they dress and look different than we do. Unlike so many writers though, Pratchett has incorporated this "lesson" so thoroughly into the story that you never feel like you are being preached at or being told how to think. Rather he carefully builds his arguments by allowing us to see everything through the eyes of his characters. It's their reactions to circumstances, the thought process they go through to form their opinions, that gives the reader the opportunity to gain a greater understanding of the world.

Of course no Pratchett book is complete without humour, and Nation is no exception. However there is also a level of sadness to the work as it becomes obvious that Daphne and Mau are becoming very close, and equally obvious that they will not be able to be together. There's a beautiful little afterward to the book, which genuinely brought a tear to my eye, something I'd not expected from either a book by Terry Pratchett or one written for young people.

Nation by Terry Pratchett may be nominally a book for young people, but it is a tale that will bring pleasure to people of all ages. Intelligent, entertaining, and a little sad, Nation might make you think at times, but it will never bore you. It's too bad we couldn't receive more of our education through books like this.

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