THE BRITTLE STAR
by Davina Langdale
Paperback: 320 pages
Price: AUD $22.99
Reviewed by Jeffry Babb
The Brittle Star is a quest narrative. John Evert Burn must find his mother, who has been abducted by raiders. He and his mother farm a ranch near Anaheim, not far from Los Angeles. Los Angeles in the 1860s is not totally lawless, yet it is not totally civilised. John Evert is 15 but he is able to handle himself on the frontier; he is his mother’s right hand. California had not long been part of the United States of America. The town of Los Angeles reflects its Spanish founding. Angelinos, even now, are conscious that they are different from the people in the East. Only those who wanted to take sides fought in the war between the states (the U.S. Civil War), otherwise, they ignored it.
The law sat lightly on the Angelinos; the writ of government often didn’t go far beyond the city limits. Often people took the law into their own hands.
John Evert’s ranch is paradisiacal. A river runs through it, a veritable blessing in a parched land that is regularly in semi-drought. The memory of this oasis sustains John Evert in his wanderings. So does his burning desire for revenge against Phineas Gunn, the neighbour who covets both his widowed mother and their ranch. Gunn has “an ugly soul”. The Paiute Indians seem to be no longer warlike, but one can never be sure.
When John Evert thinks of the ranch, the words from Revelations 21:1 echo in his mind: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away.”John Evert prays before he goes into battle. His mentor, William Adair-Wilson, British pirate and Texas Ranger, may be a devil or he may be a trickster.
In its themes and setting, the Brittle Star resembles Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1995) and Cities of the Plain (1998). The sense that John Evert is on a trek in a post-apocalyptic world somewhat resembles McCarthy’s The Road (2006), without thegrinding pessimism and potential for horror. The land that John Evert and his party traverse on horseback to return to California has been war-ravaged, but it will be restored.
The main point of distinction between Langdale and McCarthy is between pessimist and optimism. Langdale believes that God works in this world. When John Evert, near death, is rescued from the desert, he is brought back to life by a Catholic priest.
The Brittle Star is an odyssey. For John Evert, Beth Robinson and Kusox, a Pawnee Indian, the ranch is their destination and their haven. John Evert is enslaved to liquor. Kusox forces John Evert to eat the psychedelic mushroom peyote and “crosses over”. He never drinks liquor again. John Evert’s revelation that liquor is destroying him is his conversion on the road to Damascus.
The novel is rich in symbolism. The image of the holly bush in the cloven oak tree is a memory of the ranch that John Evert always carries with him no matter where he goes. The oak’s significance is obvious. The Californian oak is a distinctive attribute of the ranch that holds a symbolic implication for the story. The oak endures the blazing heat of summer; the winter’s cold, raging storms and earthquakes. The oak’s roots are deep in the earth. The oak endures.
We can say then that the image of the holly bush growing from the cloven Californian oak, to which Langdale returns several times, is central to The Brittle Star’s symbolic structure – that the ranch offers redemption and hope, even when things seem hopeless.
The Brittle Star is a fine first novel. The book convincingly captures the atmosphere of the Old West. It has a strong narrative drive that will keep readers spell-bound to the end. The story is not quite a romance and it is not predictable. Even a rogue like William Adair-Wilson wins the reader’s sympathy. The romantic element is plausible but things are not always what they seem to be.
The Brittle Star is not a cowboy story, though it is set in the American West in the 1860s. Life was tough and so were the people. But this was an era of transition. The South had lost the Civil War and the industrialising North was triumphant. Even in faraway California, newspapers became the main source of news. Newspapers took their news “off the wire”, that is, the telegraph, then a new invention which was revolutionising communications.
The Franciscan missions had brought a measure of civilisation to California, but Spain’s dominion over California was over. Men were still hanged with alacrity. The city of “Our Lady of the Angels of Porciuncula” – “Los Angeles” – was becoming more civilised, even if it was still rough around the edges.