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Channel Islands Ecocide: T.C. Boyle's When the Killing's Done

When the Killings Done by T. C. Boyle Viking Press 2011

Those of us who live along the Southern California coast in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties have frequent opportunities to look south (yes, south) to the ocean and see both Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands. It requires a clear day but they are so close that some days we feel we can walk right across the channel and stride up their peaks.

T. C. Boyle's new novel will give all of us new eyes to see them at the center of a worldwide ecological dilemma. Boyle has produced an eco-novel, a genuine narrative about people, their inner lives, their values, and their powerful dedication to preserving nature. But just what “preserving nature” means forms the core of the dilemmas facing his large cast of characters.

For radical preservationists, all life has value, so the National Park Service plan to eradicate thousands of introduced sheep and pigs installed years ago for profit and sport violates their primary principle: "thou shall not harm animals." Even shipwrecked rats deserve their day. But for biologists and historically focused ecologists, saving and returning indigenous species—diminutive island foxes, bald eagles, local mice—to Anacapa and Santa Cruz trumps the ugly horror of slaughtering the invaders and serves as the guiding principle for a government-sponsored, scientifically-supported kill. The Nature Conservancy (“Protecting Nature, Preserving Life”) agrees.

If these issues stood alone as the center of conflicts in the narrative, When the Killing's Done would present the historical facts of restoring these two islands in an engaging polemic, a political tale of cool science versus hot activism. But Boyle embeds the eco-drama in the lives of complex characters whose commitment to either side of the restoration issue exposes their flaws, their fears, their anger, and their troubled intimate relationships. The islands appear in all their contrary power--their serene beauty and awesome fury. The characters' emotions also swing back and forth like weather systems shifting across the channel. It is not easy for us to decide which characteristic of the islands, or restoration versus preservation, we value more, though I think at the end we do decide.

Alma Boyd Takesue, the lead project biologist, confesses her qualms about all the killing. The animals are left to rot on site because of the potential for infection they pose as pets or meat. Some of the most intense scenes in the book follow her and her hired team of marksmen as they hunt down the remaining gigantic feral hogs, who tear up Santa Cruz and devour native oak seedlings.

But Alma cannot push forward to her admirable goal of restoration without being hounded by the squad of protestors who threaten her professional and personal life. She also has a secret that complicates her willingness to kill for the greater good. The protestors themselves, led by the volatile and manipulative David Lajoy, cannot make a clear, honorable case for preservation without becoming rabid and reckless. Lajoy will go so far as to sneak new non-indigenous species onto the islands just to thwart the efforts of restoration.

For locals along the coast, Boyle's evocative depiction of the islands themselves, and his familiarity with Oxnard, Ventura, Montecito and Santa Barbara (he is a local resident and English prof at USC) make the novel a local color treat. Its historical depth—the names and places we may have heard of before associated with the islands, and his environmental savvy—provide informative background for Channel Island aficionados. But it’s his prose (Boyle is after all an award-winning author of over a dozen books) that captures our imagination.

The writing here is fine—sometimes dense, with deliberately abstruse vocabulary, and with sections of the book shifting abruptly from character to character. But the vivid sights and sounds of wind and storm and frequent channel crossings, and the continual evocation of both land and sea in their tumultuous dance of stability and flux make When the Killing’s Done a magnificent read. Here’s an island creek swollen with rain:

“Roiled and hissing, bristling with debris and loud with the sucking clamor of dislodged rock, it fans across the mouth of the canyon in a muddy sheet, carving its way through sand to send snaking brown tentacles out into the sea.”

The churning creek itself becomes a fantastic animal, a squealing hog, a hissing snake, a threatening octopus. Passages like this light up every page so that we sense the living power of familiar nature in a new, arresting way.

For preservationists and restorationists alike and all lovers of these islands, When the Killing’s Done is a turbulent and enlightening read.

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