Tierra del Fuego
by Sylvia Iparraguirre
Category: Fiction / Historical
200 pages; ISBN: 1880684721
Rating: 8/10 (Ratings explained)
Reviewer: Paul Lappen
This novel is told in flashback by John William Guevara, son of an English father and Argentinean mother, who grew up in 19th century Argentina as part of neither world. Orphaned as a teenager, he took to the sea and ended up in London, an almost mythical city that was subject of many stories from his father.
One of Guevara's voyages was to the southern tip of South America, to map the Tierra del Fuego. Along on the journey was a British naturalist working on a biological theory of evolution, a man named Charles Darwin. While there, the captain of the ship, Robert Fitzroy, kidnapped a couple of local indigenous people, the Yamana indians, one of them named Jemmy Button, and brought them back to England with the idea of "civilizing" them.
The theory is that having spent a year among "superior" English society wearing clothes and eating with utensils, the Indians, when brought back home, will spread the "joys" of civilization among the other Indians. Guevara, also an outsider, was about the only person to establish a relationship with Button, and also the only one to foresee the experiment's outcome.
Later, Button was arrested by the British authorities and brought to trial on the Falkland Islands. He was accused of leading an Indian massacre of a ship full of British missionaries who had arrived to convert the Yamana to Christianity. Guevara attended the trial, if only to see Button, his friend, and offer moral support.
Based on a true story, this book is part seafaring story, part European colonialism, and part cultural tale of human nature (like Heart of Darkness) and it succeeds on all these levels. It's a rather "quiet" novel that may take some effort on the part of the reader, but, by the end, it is very much worth reading.