My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Catherine Stewart has had an interesting life, but the telling of it is not so interesting. The book conveyed very little of Catherine’s motivations or philosophy – which is surely what you most want to read about, when a person has made the decision to raise a family in such a remote area: in the early 1990s Catherine moved in with her new partner, Robert Long, who was already living in a shack at the mouth of Gorge River in south west New Zealand that is only accessible by air, or a 2 day walk.
Catherine and Robert raised a son and daughter there and at the time the book was published (2012) their children — who sound like awesome, capable, creative young adults — had grown up and flown the nest, but Catherine and Robert were still living at by the river, albeit with a few mod cons such as solar electricity and the internet.
I found the book disappointing because it is more a series of anecdotes, loosely arranged by theme (food, education, wildlife, etc.) than the thoughtful introspection I hope for, when I read a memoir.
The book doesn’t even explain why Catherine chose to live at Gorge River; she just seems to have stumbled into it, and stayed. A chapter heading, ‘Signposts along the way’ suggests that this is exactly what happened, but the book leaves too many questions unanswered. Why did Catherine exchange a career as a pathologist, for a life as wife and mother that is in many ways very traditional? What attracted her about this life? What was it about her husband Robert that drew her to him? What was the role of her faith, that she barely mentions? Has she had regrets, and how has she resolved them? I suspect this reticence is because she is a very private person — but it doesn’t make for a great read.
I realise Wife at Gorge River is a companion to her husband’s book, but there seems to also be an assumption that the reader will know a whole lot of things — like what ‘The Roar’ is (rutting season for deer), or the fact that (unlike in Australia), possums are a major pest in New Zealand. I would also have liked to know more about why Robert chose to live there in the first place, without having to go look for his book.
Being a lover of nature books, I would also have liked more details on the natural environment and the changes Catherine witnessed over twenty years, and more commentary on why these have may have occurred — the unrelenting march of the possums for example, which in the early years were not so prevalent.
In spite of these gripes, the book does open a window into an unusual life. Many of the anecdotes about home-schooling, making-do, and how the family make a living, are interesting and even inspiring — showing what people are capable of when thrown almost entirely on their own resources. I particularly liked the story of her daughter Robin making her own high heels for the school formal.
It’s also clear that in spite of their isolation, the family had a rich social network, from trampers dropping in for a cup of tea and a lift across the river, to fisherman and helicopter operators who could help in emergencies. This made me wonder about social connections in other environments — perhaps you can be more alone in the city, where the internet provides so many substitutions for human contact and inter-dependence, than in a remote area where mutual reliance is essential for survival.
Do I have what it takes to live a life like Catherine’s? Probably not. Even though as a city-dweller I envy the experience of living so close to sea and bush, and wish I’d raised my own child closer to the natural world, I think I would have gone stir-crazy, virtually alone with two small children for months on end. But she’s clearly made a great success of the life she chose, and has obviously found great personal satisfaction. She also recognises that it’s been a privilege, which pleased me, as I can’t help but feel that if everyone took this path, there would be no wilderness left in which to live it — and who would be left to fly those emergency helicopters?
I still can’t bring myself to give the book more than 2 stars for I really didn’t enjoy the writing or lack of reflection, but Catherine Stewart surely deserves 5 stars for a life well-lived.