The Settling Earth by Rebecca Burns

the settling earthRed ribbons…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

This short collection of ten interlinked stories tells of the experiences of the British women who came as settlers to Auckland in New Zealand in the late 19th century. From farmer’s wife to prostitute, baby-farmer to temperance campaigner, each story stands on its own. But there’s a red ribbon running through them, binding these women to each other even when they are unaware of it, their lives as linked as the stories about them. Themes run from story to story, of loneliness and belonging, of motherhood, of the gradual change from immigrant to settler.

The book starts with a new immigrant, a girl married off to an older man she barely knew, and uprooted from her life in England to live on an isolated farm in this new land. Through her, we see the strangeness of this new landscape and feel the nostalgia of the early settlers for the land they still think of as home. The second story takes us to her husband, but even in the rare circumstance that one of the stories focuses on a man, it’s still there primarily to cast light on the lives of the women. Burns portrays this as a very male-dominated society where women are still almost entirely subordinate. In fact the theme of prostitution runs strongly through the book, both overtly when we are taken inside the brothel, and more figuratively, when many of the women are defined by their value as sexual objects to men. The one weakness of the collection for me, in fact, is that all the men are portrayed very negatively – while Burns is not suggesting she is showing every aspect of this immigrant society, the slice she shows us is perhaps a little unbalanced.


(Attempts to attract women to colonial New Zealand began early. In this 1839 poster advertising the first sailing of a shipload of Scottish settlers, single women are offered free passage. From the collection of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, Scotland.)

Motherhood plays a major role in many of the stories, but not at all with a rosy glow around it. There is the prostitute who becomes pregnant and hopes against reason that the father will take responsibility. The woman who gives up her illegitimate child to a baby-farmer in order to marry another man. The baby-farmer, who takes in unwanted children for money, and then kills them, until one day a child steals through her defences. The childless widow, doing good works to keep her loneliness and longing at bay. The daughter, sexually brutalised by her mother’s new husband. But through it all, there is a sense of the strength of these women, surviving despite all that life throws at them.

The tone, however, is not irredeemably hopeless – it feels as though these women are on the cusp of change, that a new generation, native to this land as their mothers weren’t, may play a different role. Burns very subtly shows how attitudes change as people settle and communities form – the new immigrants filled with nostalgia for ‘home’, while the settlers are beginning to feel themselves to be New Zealanders and resenting newcomers making comparisons that are always to the detriment of the new country.

Parnell and Auckland Harbour c.1870 by John Barr Clarke Hoyte
Parnell and Auckland Harbour c.1870
by John Barr Clarke Hoyte

The final story is written by a Maori author, Shelly Davies, giving a different perspective. In truth, I’m not sure that this works well. It feels a little contrived – in fact, each time the Maoris were mentioned I couldn’t help feeling that the book was straying too far into ‘politically correct’ territory. There is a clear suggestion that Maori men treat their women far more respectfully than white men do theirs, and while there may be truth in this (I don’t know) the comparison feels a little too slick and overdrawn, and depends on acceptance that all white men behave as appallingly as the ones in these stories.

The quality of the writing is excellent, as is the depth of characterisation, especially given the limitations of length. The links between the stories are often loose but overall there is a kind of completion of a circle, taking us back almost to where we began. Individually I found most of the stories absorbing and intriguing, and some are intensely moving. But it’s when taken as a whole that the book has its full effect. Certainly recommended, and I look forward to reading more of the author’s work.

NB This book was provided for review by the author via NetGalley.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

30 thoughts on “The Settling Earth by Rebecca Burns

  1. What an interesting approach to linking a collection of stories, FictionFan! I’m glad you enjoyed the writing style, too. I know what you mean about the perhaps unbalanced portrait of men in the collection; I’m not keen on that myself. But I do love portraits of history, and this one sounds like a well-written one. And the setting? That’s just about irresistible. Sounds like it was well-portrayed, too.


    • Very well written, Margot, and though it was a bit unbalanced with regard to the men, she gave a much more balanced picture of the women – it would have been easy for her to fall into the trap of making them all unnaturally good, but she didn’t at all. For such a short book, it had a big impact on me – I’ll definitely be looking out for more from her.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Gee, I’m not at all sure this one sounds like something I’d enjoy, FF. It sounds a bit “harsh” with the baby-killing and child-assaulting, you know. I’m sure that sort of thing happened back in the unenlightened past, but just call me “Ostrich” and let me go about seeing the world through my rosy lenses!!


    • There were definitely some fairly harrowing chapters, but not at all graphic. But her writing was so good she carried it off, and lots of the stories were emotional without being so bleak. Even the abused girl’s story was more one of overcoming adversity than sinking beneath it. A powerful little book… and I love reading about all aspects of the colonial period. But I’ll let you off this time… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Red ribbons…now what does that mean?

    So…what sort of things did they eat? That’s always an interest. And did they have any cool weapons? Like a ka-bar, for instance.

    (In 1839, I would never have gone to AUS, not even if it was free!)


    • I can’t tell you – you’d be too shocked! *wide eyes*

      No ka-bars, unfortunately, but there was a bush with poison berries. They ate a lot of mutton… and pickled eggs! Sounds yummy, doesn’t it? *gags* What they needed was some decent men, like my Schwarzy, for example! Not a single one of the men could do loon impersonations. Imagine! How dull life must have been…

      (That’s funny, because I was kind of regretting not having been alive then – be careful what you say! – with all the opportunities to go to a brand new place and be one of the first. It might have been tough and hard but it’s have been exciting…)


      • No, I wouldn’t! Tell me, madam!

        It would’ve been very dull. A decent man…like the professor! I wonder why they got all the mean ones down there. *shakes head* Oh well. Mutton and pickled eggs does sound good, actually! Can you make mutton? I’ve tried a few times. Grilling it and such. It’s rather tasty.

        (You?! *laughs a bit* But, FEF…it would’ve been brutal! And you would’ve had to have a weapon, or go with a warrior. BUS was alive then, you said.)


        • Well…either it’s a metaphor for women’s sexuality, or it’s pretty decorations for a party. You may choose… *giggles*

          But you’d have had to learn the New Zealand accent then. I hate mutton – it’s too muttony. I don’t mind lamb, but on the whole I eat a fairly sheep-free diet. Cows and pigs need to be careful around me though…

          (*gobsmacked face* You seem to be forgetting that I am a proud warrioress, sir! I’d soon have sorted those pesky men out and set them to the essential task of building chocolate factories… She was, but to be fair, she was quite young then.)


    • The brutality is not at all graphically portrayed – her writing of it is very subtle. I wasn’t sure about this before I read it, but I was really impressed. Despite my minor criticisms, I found it absorbing and I still remember bits of it vividly though it’s been a few weeks since I read it – which is unusual for me and the sign of a good book. I hope you enjoy them too! 🙂


  4. I know even less about the history of New Zealand than I do of Australia’s – and you could write that on the back of a stamp, so maybe this would be a good book to start with. Funnily enough, I was talking to a friend today who has been researching her family history, and who has discovered that one of her female relatives was sent to the penal colony in Hobart, so maybe I’ll suggest this book to her.


    • I know a little bit because of being friends with a Kiwi when I was in London, since she was interested in her own history. And that’s left me with an interest about NZ in general. And of course I’m on an empire/colonial kick at the moment. I’d think your friend might well enjoy this – I thought it gave a really credible picture of the early days of settlement.


  5. That sounds like a good read. I’ve not read much about New Zealand. I did read one book from a friend who lives there, but it didn’t stick with me. I read A Town Like Alice and learned a lot about Australia. It succeeded in making me to choose to not set foot in that country. Not even for Crocodile Dundee.

    *looks around in all corners* *whistles and casually picks up a green Star Burst and leaves*


    • I had a Kiwi friend when I lived in London so I learned a bit about NZ from her. It’s actually not dissimilar to Scotland in terms of weather patterns and so on – just upside down! I doubt if I’ll ever travel that far now, but I kinda wish I’d seen both Australia and NZ when I was *gulps* younger…

      Between you and the wicked Professor I have no green ones left!! Just as well neither of you knows where I’ve hidden my green ice-lollies…


  6. This book sounds compelling. Thank you for your excellent review. I wonder if I’d find it too depressing though. I’m fascinate by New Zealand, though.


    • I think I might have made it sound more depressing than it is – it’s emotional, but the women are survivors. When I lived in London, I shared a house with a New Zealander for a while and it’s left me with an interest in the country. It always sounded like such a great lifestyle I couldn’t really understand why all the young people seem to come over here!


    • Haha! I know – it’s kinda bright! No, no, NO!!! It’s bad enough trying to hide the green ones from Susan and the Professor without you joining the hunt too! *hastily digs a hole in the garden*


  7. Thanks FF for the introduction to this book. Given it’s local interest for me as a NZer, I bumped it up to the top of my reading list. I wondered why I hadn’t heard of Rebecca Burns and see that she is a UK author who has researched the lives and writing of female settlers in NZ. I did very much like the interlinked stories and was interested in the revealed stories of women from a time when men’s work in colonising, exploring and ‘breaking in’ a new (to the colonisers) country was regarded as the story worth telling. As a local (I live in Christchurch and have lived in Auckland), for me, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries had a more finely developed sense of recognisable place than these stories. I’m not sure if that’s because Catton is a local author or if the short stories in fact reflect these characters’ lack of a deeper connection with (and even alienation from) their new home. Shelley Davies’ final chapter did ring true for me from my own experience of Māori perspectives in this time.

    And yes, many of us do travel afar especially as young people; it’s a rite of passage because there are no borders where we can pop over and explore a new country. So when we go on our ‘big OE’ (overseas experience) we tend to go as far and as long as we can, given the financial investment required. However, most of us do come back, though some do yearn for a bigger pool to play in and stay away or get caught up in other lives in other places.


    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it, underrunner! I hadn’t realised Rebecca Burns wasn’t a NZer, but I do agree that the sense of place isn’t nearly as well developed as in The Luminaries, so you may well have hit on the reason. In this one what definitely stood out for me were the characters, whereas in the Catton it was the town itself that has stayed firmly in my mind. In fact, I feel as if I’d actually visited it – a very unusual feeling for me. I can’t think of another book that had that effect on me, except perhaps The Lord of the Rings! I felt Burns showed the change between the ‘newcomers’ and the established ‘settlers’ well – I guess in any culture it takes a generation at least for proper roots to be put down, especially when it’s a wave of immigration that allows the immigrants to form a community within a community. Interesting to get your perspective on the Maori aspect too – it’s always hard to know how authentic something is when you know so little about a culture.

      When I house-shared for a while with my friend from Christchurch, and saw pictures of her home there, I couldn’t help wondering why she’d traded that in to live in a tiny, run-down place in the outskirts of dirty old London! But then the grass is always greener! I felt quite sorry for NZ actually – in her family, all four of the children had gone through Uni, got their degrees and then promptly decamped to London. In her particular case, as far as I know, none of them went back. But then I suppose Brits are still moving to NZ when they get the chance too… I hope we send you as good ones as you send us… 😉


      • I agree, I was very captured by Rebecca Burns’ characters, and felt that she was doing a very good job of channelling women’s voices from the colonial times she researched. One thing about living in a country with a relatively recent colonial past is the great sense of connection that many of us feel with our earliest European settlement history because it’s only a few generations away. I really enjoyed The Luminaries as a story, and the recognition of place gave it a whole new resonance as there are not so many books grounded in this land (and the West Coast of the South Island is quite unique by landscape and culture). Another richness about living in Aotearoa New Zealand for me is the multi-generational working out of the relationship between the later settlers and the Māori tangata whenua (people of the land). This commitment to a partnership relationship is quite deeply embedded in the national psyche, to our benefit, I feel.

        I work in tertiary education, on an occasion recently, I realised that every voice I could hear in a meeting nearby came with an English accent, except for the Scottish one. So, yes, we still travel back and forth between our respective lands, and we do get some good ones coming our way too 🙂


        • Yes, having relatives in Canada, I was surprised at how much more they knew about their family history than we do – in fact, it was on my Canadian uncle’s behalf that I researched his and therefore my family tree a few years back. I guess roots become more important when someone is uprooted to move halfway round the world. And I know even from my own limited experience of moving to London that there was no greater pleasure than meeting someone from Glasgow and discussing ‘home’. The New Zealand relationship between settlers and Maoris is something that has always intrigued me – it seems to have worked out so differently and on the whole more successfully than in any of the other colonial nations. Are there any NZ authors you would recommend?


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