Jennifer Vanderbes

Easter Island

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Easter Island Summary

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Easter Island is a 2003 historical novel by Jennifer Vanderbes. Set in both 1913 and sometime near the end of the twentieth century, it follows two women, one from each time period, who travel to Easter Island with different prospects. The first, Elsa Pendleton from England, comes along with her husband, an anthropologist, and her mentally disabled sister. The latter is Greer Farraday, a botanist from the United States, who travels to Easter Island on research after her husband dies. When Elsa arrives on the island, her husband begins studying the giant stone Moai that ring the shoreline, while she studies ancient hieroglyphics engraved on tablets called rongorongo. Delving into research to redeem her reputation, having learned that her late husband plagiarized her work, Greer’s project almost a century later mirrors Elsa’s. The novel utilizes atmosphere and narrative ambiguity to offer different interpretive possibilities, refusing to resolve, clarify, or reduce its complexities and gaps in understanding.

The novel begins by contextualizing Easter Island’s geography and history. A triangular hunk of rock in the remote Pacific Ocean, it is over two thousand miles from the closest civilizations, Chile and Tahiti. The island is known colloquially as “Rapa Nui,” meaning “the navel of the world.” Indeed, the island functions as the symbolic center of the world of both protagonists, as they come to imbue it with their hopes for newfound agency and self-understanding. It also symbolizes their feelings of alienation from their homelands and other elements of the past.

Elsa is introduced first. In 1912, she marries Edward Beazley, an anthropologist, more out of convenience than love. Together, they undertake the long and exhausting voyage from London to Easter Island, along with her sister, Alice. Her voyage and hope for a new life are framed by her ignorance that World War I is, at the same time, drawing closer to Easter Island. In contrast, Greer marries her botany professor, Thomas Farraday, out of a social obligation and to secure career capital that might not otherwise be afforded to a female researcher.

A lingering trope in the novel is that of the unanswered mystery. The simplest example of a question with no concrete answer is how the Moai came to appear on Easter Island. Elsa ponders the island’s ancient hieroglyphic archive, trying to connect the navel of the world to its roots as a proxy for her will to restore her own sense of connection with history. Greer, in parallel, scrutinizes pollen cores sourced from the island’s plants, hoping to draw evolutionary connections between the island and distant lands from which the spores might have drifted thousands of years ago.

The protagonists’ scientific pursuits are challenged by the realities of their respective times. In Elsa’s narrative, World War I is encroaching on the Pacific, and a German squadron that includes her former lover surreptitiously sets up base on the island. The question of why the progressing war is mostly kept secret from the island’s inhabitants is never explicitly addressed, but it is possible that it was in order to keep Easter Island a vulnerable option for military occupation. In Greer’s narrative, she struggles to hold her own as an academic despite her excellence, having been overshadowed by her late husband, who stole much of her work and took credit for it. Both of these characters ultimately manage to confront the gender expectations of their respective times.

At the end of the novel, Greer begins to draw novel insights about the evolutionary origin of the pollen on Easter Island. Elsa improves her understanding of herself as she learns that she excels at anthropology and linguistics, conducting unprecedented research. Easter Island thus utilizes the abstract, remote environment and elliptical history of the eponymous geographical site to map out the complex emotional lives and aspirations of two women drifting on the wake of modernity.