Friday, December 3, 2010

Consider Her Ways

"Go to the ant, thou sluggard, and consider her ways," says the Bible, and Frederick Philip Grove takes the advice to heart, travelling to Venezuela to study leaf-cutter ants and making telepathic contact with Wawa-quee, leader of a great journey of exploration undertaken at the behest of Queen Orrha-wee. The book is the record of that journey.

The expedition heads north, crossing the Panama canal and the Mississippi River before arriving in New York City. The journey takes years to complete, and enables the author to introduce a wide variety of ants and their amazing adaptations. In addition to the agricultural leaf-cutters, we meet army ants, honey-pot ants, harvester ants, slave-making ants, and ants that herd aphids.

The author's second purpose is Swiftian satire. He gives us an ant's-eye view of human affairs that is delightfully skewed, while at the same time poking fun at the ants themselves, who are as guilty of misplaced pride as the humans they look down upon. During the journey they meet a dentist, a farmer, and a myrmecologist, but the most amusing bits occur in New York City. There they take up residence in the Public Library, and one of them becomes addicted to crime fiction. Wawa-quee's confused observations about clothing are priceless.

Unfortunately, while ants are fascinating creatures, Grove fails to find a consistently entertaining way of melding fact with fiction. The subplot he comes up with (seditious egg-laying) is not very compelling, and in fact is just another way of including an interesting bit of ant lore. As a result the book is rather dry and tedious until the last of the five chapters, when the ants finally reach New York. For me, the book remains an interesting but flawed attempt (like Anthill by E.O. Wilson) to novelize the lives of ants.

Frederick Philip Grove

Grove was born in Europe, where he translated into German the work of many important writers (Swift, Dickens, Flaubert, Balzac, etc.). He was a friend of H.G. Wells, and led an adventurous and somewhat unsavory life, which included a stint in jail and a faked suicide, before he finally ended up in Canada. Grove is not the name he was born with, and he wrote under a number of pseudonyms.

In Canada he achieved a lasting respectability, publishing the following novels: Settlers of the Marsh (1925), Our Daily Bread (1928), The Yoke of Life (1930), Fruits of the Earth (1933), Two Generations (1939), Master of the Mill (1944), and Consider Her Ways (1947). He won the GG for non-fiction in 1946 for the autobiography In Search of Myself (parts of which are fictionalized). He died in 1948.