Sunday, October 26, 2008

Book Review: Everyman's Rules For Scientific Living by Carrie Tiffany

Everyman’s Rules For Scientific Living
By Carrie Tiffany
Review by Uma Anyar
Science can be a form of faith. And, just like religion, it can let you down if all you have is a list of rules.
“Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living
By Robert L. Pettergree, Agrostologist
1. Contribute to society for the achievement of mutual benefits
2. The only true foundation is a fact.
3. Keep up -to –date.
4. Avoid mawkish consideration of History and Religion.
5. Keep the mind Flexible through the development and testing of new hypotheses.
6. Cultivate the company of wiser men- men who are sticklers not shirkers.
7. Disseminate. The labors and achievements of men of science must become the permanent possession of many.
8. Bring science into the home.
Published in the Victorian Department of Agricultural Journal, May 1934.”
In 1934 Robert Pettergree put his faith in agro-science and moved to Wycheproof, a dusty farming town in the Mallee region of Victoria, Australia. He had charts, a slide rule, production notebooks, agricultural department pamphlets, a night school education and, most importantly, a need to prove himself in the world. He was a modern man armed with science.
Robert Pettergree’s thirst for success was predicated on a childhood filled with hunger and neediness. His mother, Lillian, a poor prostitute, loved him and shared her hand full of dirt with her hungry son.
“She takes the tonic spoon and sits on the back step digging at the soil… and says ‘Brown –It tastes brown.’ They share. They always share.”
She gave birth to two other babies who died of Spina Bifida, Latin for split spine. Poor diet with a lack of oranges seemed to be the cause. Robert pursued science and learning as if it were salvation. Ironically, Robert developed a taste for dirt and could tell when a pinch of soil was from one farming county or another. He was never wrong and the astonished farmers enjoyed placed bets on the ‘Soil Taster’s’ remarkable skill.
Carrie Tiffany’s debut novel has a rich story line, believable characters and is informative about 1930’s Australian farm life and the vicissitudes of growing wheat in the Mallee. It is powerful in the way Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath depicted the dust bowl calamity to Americans.
The story is about a marriage and a man’s mission to improve nature through science. It is told in a clean, spare style. Indeed, the most beguiling aspect of the book is Robert’s wife’s observant, non self-pitying voice. As the main character, Jean leads us into a time and a place that on the surface may not sound like exciting reading material but is surprisingly gripping. This is a remarkably beautiful book, well researched, literary in the best sense and very wise. Carrie Tiffany is dealing with more than the flat facts of farming in poor soil; she is exploring human nature, desire, belief and faith from both a female and male point of view. Yet, this book is not a feminist polemic. It is art because the writer makes us care not only about the characters on her pages but also about the place itself. This is a novel in which the land and the historical era are not mere atmospheric background but actual presences.
“Mallee mornings don’t flicker. There are no hazy beginnings, no half-light of hesitation where day meets night. The Mallee sun snaps over the horizon with a sure and sudden glow of electric light. Long sharp rays of yellow reach across the flat horizon like tentacles. I have seen this before. On a packet of Mildura raisins. Raisins, Full of Goodness from the sun. Eat More Raisins Everyday in Every Way. The picture on the packet shows children frolicking in a paddock of golden wheat wearing neat shorts and knitted jumpers; the sun’s rays touch them like ribbons from a maypole.”
Jean Finnegan, a woman with her own ideas, is the surprising survivor of her husband’s failed scientific farming experiment and her own miscarriage. She knows how to go on, how to bend into the land rather than conquer it. In the end it is she who bonds with the hard land in a passionate and permanent way. It is Robert Pettergree’s tragic tunnel vision and cold determination that make him blind to Nature and to his devoted wife. In spite of Jean’s strong character I find myself haunted by Robert who shifts his idealism from science to patriotism and goes off to war rather than accept the failure of his vision. His belief that science and technology could tame Nature was one of the hallmarks of Modernism. That kind of hubris has brought us to a time when global warming is making us seriously question those tenets and consider new ways of working within Nature’s paradigm.

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