Terry Pratchett


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Nation Summary

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Nation (2008), an allegorical adventure novel by English fantasy author Terry Pratchett, concerns the small society that a boy and girl build on a remote island in the wake of a devastating tidal wave. It takes place in an alternate historical timeline around the mid-1800s.

In the alternate history of the book, a Russian flu pandemic has thrown the world in turmoil by killing not only the king, but also all of the 137 heirs in the royal line of succession. Meanwhile, the book’s main plot takes place on a remote but populated island simply referred to as “Nation” in the South Pelagic Ocean, which is Pratchett’s fictional name for the South Pacific Ocean.

After a giant tsunami crashes into the island, every human living there perishes with the exception of a young indigenous boy named Mau. Mau is rowing a canoe in the ocean on a religious rite of passage when the tsunami hits. Having had this rite interrupted and returning to find his entire family and community dead, he angrily denounces the gods of his people. Nevertheless, Mau still honors the beliefs of the tribe by bringing their dead bodies to the sea, in accordance with the custom that being buried in the ocean allows a soul to come back as a dolphin.

Mau is alone until he meets Ermintrude, a young girl of European birth who is close to Mau’s age. She is the sole survivor of the Sweet Judy, a ship that wrecked in the tsunami. She hates the name “Ermintrude” and insists on being called Daphne instead. At first, the two are wary of each other. However, before long, Mau and Daphne realize that their survival depends on them cooperating with one another. They slowly begin to learn the language and customs of the other.

Time passes; eventually, Mau and Daphne are joined by three additional survivors that sail to Nation from neighboring islands also hit by the tidal wave. They include Ataba, a devout priest who seems to be in near-constant conflict with Mau over the young boy’s loss of faith. More survivors show up, including some who speak Daphne’s language. There are also cannibals on the island, and Mau stays up night after night to protect Daphne from potential attacks. Meanwhile, Daphne bridges the two cultures, serving as a midwife for a European and his wife while being in touch with the island’s spirituality enough that she hears the voices of its people’s ancestral Grandmothers.

One day, Mau and Ataba go on a quest to return the sacred white rocks known as “god anchors” that are said to keep the island safe from tsunamis. They find the rocks, but they also find a meticulously carved stone resembling Rodin’s The Thinker. To Mau, the existence of this statue proves there is more to the island’s history and philosophy than what the gods would have them believe. To Ataba, the statue is heretical and must be destroyed. While attempting to do so, Ataba becomes trapped in the lagoon. Mau saves Ataba’s life but develops hypothermia because of the ordeal and enters a coma. Only Daphne is able to save Mau’s consciousness through a sacred ritual involving the ingestion of a poison given to her by a shaman.

Life goes on for the island’s inhabitants in a state of peace and relative normalcy until a group of vicious European men led by a villain named Cox arrive. They kidnap Daphne who recognizes them as the men who led a mutiny on the Sweet Judy ship. Daphne outsmarts the men, escaping their clutches. Soon after, Cox becomes the de facto leader of the cannibals, attempting to use them as his own personal army to take over the island for himself. To avoid a large-scale battle, Mau convinces Cox to fight him in one-on-one combat for control of the island. Mau easily defeats Cox, saving the day.

The next interloper to arrive is Daphne’s father, Henry Fanshaw. Amid a population decimated by the Russian flu, Fanshaw has become the next king of England. Daphne leaves with Fanshaw but requests that when she dies, she be returned to the island to be buried at sea so she can become a dolphin. Tragically, this happens just two years later. The book ends with an epilogue explaining that thousands of scientists, including Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin, went on to visit the island for inspiration.

Nation has won many literary awards while garnering near-unanimous praise from critics. Pratchett said in a 2009 speech, “I believe that Nation is the best book I have ever written, or will write.”