New Leaf September 2019 Discussion • The Shepherd's Life by James Rebanks
#1  issybird 09-01-2019, 07:01 AM
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James Rebanks’s captivating new book about his family’s small sheep farm in England is also a book about continuity and roots and a sense of belonging in an age that’s increasingly about mobility and self-invention. It’s a book about a way of life essentially unchanged for centuries in an era that’s all about change and flux. And it’s a book about a farming family whose history has played out in the fields, hills and villages between the Lake District and the Pennines for at least six centuries. [New York Times]

#2  issybird 09-15-2019, 07:02 AM
What did we think of The Shepherd's Life?

#3  gmw 09-15-2019, 10:34 AM
Are you sure you want to know?

I had very mixed reactions and I have copious notes. Rather than dump it all here and now, I thought I would start with my positive reactions (because the notes for these are shorter):

The book was supposed to be about rural life in the Lake District (or that's how it is marketed), and this aspect of the book I quite enjoyed. It was interesting to note both the similarities and differences to my own rural childhood. (I grew up on a dairy farm on the flood plains of the Murray River; so a different sort of farm and a very different sort of landscape.)

I think he lays it on a bit thick at times. Which is not to say any particular incident is exaggerated, but the sheer concentration of incidents obscures the real payoff that exists in farming, the reason why people keep doing it. I think he does try to convey that, but it's not as clearly presented as the hardships.

While my parent's farm was dairy, we had a few sheep (raised for the table), and I had relatives that farmed sheep. So there were some strange déjà vu moments in the book, like where he speaks of treating fly-struck sheep ("the smell of the noxious stuff") and I could smell the liquid we used to use. (But then I wondered if it was the same smell, it seems unlikely we used the same stuff as he did.) And the lanolin smell of shearing sheds, and the oily texture of the wool. All this worked very well for me, it was real and evoked strong memories across multiple senses.

#4  Victoria 09-15-2019, 03:43 PM
I enjoyed the book overall. It evoked my childhood quite strongly too. I grew up on the Tusket river, in a small rural fishing village. My people were farmers too, (though avid recreational fishermen).

I loved reading about the Lake District landscape: him looking out over the valleys; his descriptions of the brooks, the stony ground & harsh weather. I also enjoyed the rhythm and seasons of farm life, and his passages about other farmers and community activities. They were the highlights for me.

But like gmw, I had some mixed feelings too. Today would have been my father’s 100th birthday - a poignant day. Rebanks’ grandfather and my father were the same age. We followed him around, ‘helping’ and were taught the importance of work hard, and to value family, friends and neighbours.

So I can appreciate many of the feelings Rebanks expresses in the book - an ancient way of life that he loves is threatened. When my father and his generation passed away, a vast storehouse of knowledge died with them. Most of us here couldn’t survive on our own anymore. We eat from the supermarket, not our own hand.

Provincially, most family farms have been bought out by agribusinesses. The’ve replaced hardy flavourful traditional crops with bland homogeneous ones. International corporations are doing their best to eliminate generations of Maritime family fisherman. So I get where Rebanks is coming from. That said, sometimes the chip on his shoulder felt a bit much.

I’m not sure he’s that honest with himself. He scoffs at artists, yet quotes poetry. He downplays the significance of his education at Oxford, yet his passion about UNESCO’s mission seemed as important to him as when he’s sliding around in the mud.

My biggest issue was with the bitterness he expresses in regard to the beauty of the Lake District, and who has a right to enjoy it. Most people are where we are by accident of birth. The position that unless you work the land, you have no right to appreciate it seems a false dichotomy.

He also seems to feel that loving the beauty of the natural world and landscape is superficial; hard physical work is the only thing that counts. That’s a bit condescending. Excuse the gore, but you can be knee deep in fish guts and enjoy the sunrise / sunset at the same time - millions do. And billions of people do other kinds of worthy work every day, including academic and artistic work.

Sorry for the longwinded posts. I guess it’s evidence I was quite engaged. And despite my criticisms, I respect James Rebanks; what he’s doing and why. I enjoyed his book, and grateful to be introduced to it.

#5  gmw 09-15-2019, 08:01 PM
Excellent, Victoria, you touch on many of the points I found annoying. Here are a few of my peeves...

The opening made be angry because it appears to be a 40yo man making excuses for his 13yo being an arrogant and ill-mannered thug who was violent, petty and ignorant … and proud of it! The blame is placed on the teachers and their ignorance of the Lake District culture - an “abyss of understanding”. Cop out!

As we read on it becomes apparent that the real problem was three living generations of male isolationism. Grandfather didn’t trust schools or outsiders, and son worshipped his grandfather so of course he had no respect for school or it’s intentions, and no repercussions for his appalling behaviour.

We read on about the life he led and we see many of the difficulties, but the view remains noticeably narrow. For example, we’re told how the government doesn’t understand, but we aren’t told about the subsidies that exist to keep this culture going. We’re told about how close they came to losing the Herdwick breed, but never acknowledges what outsiders did to help protect them. But all this is so obvious that I wonder if the isolationism has been intentionally exaggerated for effect.

Given his education and wider experience, I suspect cleverness. This book is a neatly put together assembly of linked essays that mingle time in a way that never really gets confused but contrasts different parts of his life while still offering a forward progression. That much, I think, is real and intentional, and very well done.

But so much of the book is convincing in its aggressively defensive stance, and the conservative conceit that his traditional life is so much more meaningful than all those other people he goes out of his way to learn nothing about. That a people foreign to us “all look the same” is such a truism that it has become a joke, and yet time and again through this book he describes outsiders as all the being same. And then I come back to the work he did away from the farm and that apparent ignorance doesn’t quite fit either.

The end result is that I don’t really know what to make of the author as he is now. I feel as if I know the grandfather better, because I did (and do) know a few people like that (and I’m not thinking complimentary thoughts here). And I certainly knew people like the 13yo author, which is probably another reason why the opening made me so angry.

#6  CRussel 09-15-2019, 08:05 PM
I had a really hard time with this book. Some parts I very much enjoyed but Rebanks and I got off on the wrong foot right from the very beginning. And that reached a peak at a mere 11% into the book, when he says:

"Some of the smartest people I have ever known are semi-illiterate"

as part of a whole section on denigrating education, and glorifying the avoidance of it. I was frankly expecting him to start justifying the luddites at that point.

As Victoria says, above:
Quote Victoria
I’m not sure he’s that honest with himself. He scoffs at artists, yet quotes poetry. He downplays the significance of his education at Oxford, yet his passion about UNESCO’s mission seemed as important to him as when he’s sliding around in the mud.
He also appears to justify his laddishness as a youth, including the disruption of classes. Again, I think this was a lack of self-honesty.

Overall, the writing was poor -- about on a par with the vast majority of blog posts out there, with a lack of cohesion or transition between "chapters". I found that very off-putting, and it definitely made it more difficult to enjoy the book.

All that being said, there were definitely things I enjoyed about this book, and I had no difficulty finishing it. The descriptions of the land, of the working of the sheep, and of the people who work the land are all highly evocative and often quite poetic.

#7  CRussel 09-15-2019, 08:07 PM
Quote gmw
The opening made be angry because it appears to be a 40yo man making excuses for his 13yo being an arrogant and ill-mannered thug who was violent, petty and ignorant … and proud of it! The blame is placed on the teachers and their ignorance of the Lake District culture - an “abyss of understanding”. Cop out!
Yes, exactly!

#8  gmw 09-15-2019, 08:09 PM
Reading about the subsidies that exist to keep this lifestyle going made me think about how things have changed for farmers where I grew up. Small farmers had to sell up or buy extra land - if they could afford it - and the trend continues now. And farming where I grew up is in some respects less seasonal than it was, with demand for farm produce coming all year around having forced farmers to adapt their practices. And yet in this book I read about someone that is getting to keep to the seasons, and to not worry that the lifestyle is not financially viable because the outsiders he has scoffed at are paying to support it, and I wonder that the book came to be written as it is. I'm not suggesting that the lifestyle should not be supported (although I'd argue that traditions are considerably more fluid than the author - with his mobile phone, quad-bike, antibiotics etc. - would have us believe), but I think some acknowledgement should have been made regarding what is really happening there.

#9  Bookpossum 09-15-2019, 09:24 PM
I have mixed feelings about this book also. On the plus side, I was interested to read about the life the farmers in Cumbria lead. Also, some of Rebanks' descriptions of the natural world are lovely:

Traditional upland hay meadows are a thing of beauty. Rich multicoloured waves of grasses dance in the light summer winds. Mosaics of brown, green, and purple grasses and flowers are home to a multitude of insects, birds, and occasional roe deer calves.
I also enjoyed the sense of a way of life being handed on through the generations:

The past and the present live alongside each other in our working lives, overlapping and intertwining, until it is sometimes hard to know where one ends and the other starts. Each annual task is also a memory of the many times we have done it before and the people we did it with. As long as the work goes on, the men and women that once did it with us live on as well, part of what we are doing, part of our stories and memories, part of how and why we do those things.
As for his behaviour as a boy at what sounds to be a pretty horrendous school, I find more fault with a system that labels children as non-achievers, and apparently turns a blind eye to violent bullying, than with the rebellion of those children to being so labelled. Tell people they are stupid and worthless and should "aim to be more than just farmworkers", and they believe it and behave accordingly.

While I don't condone his bad behaviour, I can understand it.

#10  Bookpossum 09-15-2019, 09:39 PM
For me, the down side of the book was Rebanks' writing style, which should have been sorted out, at least to some extent, in the editing process.

For example, he writes of pulling W H Hudson's book A Shepherd's Life out of the bookcase "like it was a piece of junk". He several times uses the word "disinterested" when he means "uninterested".

Perhaps this is deliberate, with Rebanks wanting to emphasise to the reader that he is a shepherd, not one of those patronising people who write books and fuss about grammar. I think it is a pity if that is the case, because it jarred and spoilt some of my enjoyment of the book.

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