In fire and winter, raiders and plague, that’s how the world ended in A Gift Upon the Shore, a 1990 novel by M. K. Wren. But when most post-apocalyptic stories at the time were about being hard and tough, about grit and guns, Wren’s tale is about being smart. In a world made bleak and small, how do you steward the knowledge of the past so it can rekindle civilization in the children of the future?
That’s Mary Hope’s question and mission. She’s a schoolteacher, maybe the last in the world, teaching the children of the evangelical Arkites who settled at her farm. She teaches them mathematics, history, poetry and mythology, astronomy and biology, everything she can. Many of these challenge the literalist biblical interpretations of the Arkites however, and her lessons are met with cries of blasphemy. She trains a young boy, Stephen, telling him the story of her life: her job in the city, coming to stay in Amarna, the end of the world, and the story of Rachel. Mary isn’t a young woman, someone will have to take her place one day, and she needs them to know what came before. She needs someone who will guard the vault, the last library, its books wrapped in foil and preserved in wax, waiting for the people who will need them. But one Arkite in particular needs to see all of that destroyed.
The story of Rachel is central to the book. Stephen learns about Rachel the artist, who persevered after the world ended. Amarna was her retreat from the world, but it somehow withstood the end of it. Rachel and Mary witnessed the collapse together, and weathered the winter that came afterward. The book presents Rachel as both saint and steward, a person determined to dig meaning out of life, though not always happiness. They build the vault to preserve books, and gather more while searching for survivors, two women against a dangerous world.
Nearly a decade after the end, Mary and Rachel find Luke. His and Mary’s romance leads her to the Ark, an evangelical enclave ruled over by a doctor who dictates the truth and the word. Prepared to challenge him, her time there is short and it sees the end of Rachel’s story. After the plague reaches the Ark, the Arkites turn up on Mary’s doorstep looking for shelter. She does her best to offer them a future. They bound together by faith and by need, determined to survive out of a mix of stubbornness and the holy spirit in a way that goes mostly unexplained. Their biblical traditions include things like women covering their heads, but also accommodate the necessary polyamory for even attempting to repopulate. Evangelically pragmatic, one might say.
Secularism and dogma
With that setup, the central conflict seems to be between Mary’s secular teachings and the beliefs of the Arkites, particularly their Miriam, their elder’s wife. But while the clash of science and philosophy vs. biblical teachings is there, the higher level conflict is about the size of the world. Miriam’s world is small. It encompasses the farm, but not much else. It exists in the now, the next week, and the next few years, but not much farther. It’s a simple place, with easy facts. The world that Mary strives to show the children is much larger. It reaches out into the stars and back into prehistory, it’s full of deft wordplay and tales of fast cars. It’s uncertain and messy and too big to fit in your head. In a world that’s easy to make about simple survival, Mary reminds them that it’s still the same size it used to be. That conflict strains relations at the family table, and eventually brings Miriam to the vault with an armful of dynamite.
The vault exists to give Rachel and Mary something to do, like a post-apocalyptic concept car. Until the discovery of the Ark it barely had a purpose, but preserving every book they could gave Mary and Rachel a reason to keep living. The process is described in detail, each book wrapped and sealed to keep it safe for generations. History, literature, art, science, mathematics, everything they had and everything they could find went into it, because it all matters. It helps us remember who we are.
A Gift Upon the Shore is effing rad. Easily the best book I read last year. It somehow manages to tell the story of the past and the present at the same time, with conflicting ideologies, the existential dread of the apocalypse, and the need to look past tomorrow. It’s popular to talk about the apocalypse, and preparing for it always seems to mean abandoning compassion and culture for ruthless survival. Mary’s story reminds us that we cannot abandon humanity to save it. We must be ourselves to the bitter end.
“I turn, press my palms to the door, in my mind’s eye see the wax-and-foil wrapped bundles stacked in their thousands within these thick walls. Such a pitifully small remnant of the treasure of knowledge. Still, it’s all Rachel and I have to offer the future.
It’s worth an old woman’s life.”