Every once in a while I like to read a collection of short stories to take a break from novels. There are some collections of short stories where the pieces do a fantastic job of working together as a cohesive unit while maintaining their ability to stand solidly at an individual level. The Settling Earth by Rebecca Burns is one such collection. Comprised of eight of Burns’ stories focused on British emigrants’ experiences in colonial New Zealand and one story by Shelly Davies providing a native’s perspective on the new comers, the collection takes care to look at an array of experiences that crosses the lines of both class and gender.
The hopes and dreams that brought individuals from their homes in Great Britain are tested as they face the realities of life in New Zealand. While some crossed for love or marriage, others sought to escape their pasts or otherwise difficult circumstances. What they all have in common is that none of them found the new land quite what they expected, whether to their benefit or detriment. But the emigrants brought more than just themselves, and as they try to transplant their own lives, they also wind up transplanting some of the structures of the society they left behind (the very same that some of them were actively fleeing).
There are some lines connecting the stories that are stronger and more noticeable than others: the Sandersons’ homestead and those who work there; Miss Swainson’s brothel and her girls; the scandal surrounding the home of a woman who took in the infants of desperate mothers. The links between the stories are clear in their presence but not distracting.
It’s no coincidence that most of these stories involve young children in some way. As the characters must come to terms with what it will take to achieve their dreams or the necessity of altering course, the question of what it means for their futures and those of the next generation must also be addressed. After all, the decision to leave their homes in Great Britain might have been intensely personal but the choice will impact those to come at least as much as those left behind.
Most of the stories are centered on the lives of the female emigrants. They were the ones most directly affected by the presence (or absence) of children and they were the ones for whom the translation of society’s strict structures had the greatest impact on their day-to-day lives. For the male characters, New Zealand seems to hold the promise of opportunity, while for their female counterparts New Zealand was a means of escape. They could escape being a burden to or limited by their families; they could follow the men they loved regardless of who or why they were deemed undeserving (and whether that assessment turned out to be correct). Though the social norms followed them, there is a certain elasticity that comes from the transplantation that allows for greater blurring of morality than these emigrants found in their native Great Britain. For some, that is enough; for others, it proves too much.