Reviewed by Richard M. Grimsrud (India 1965-67)
David Mather’s imaginative eco-thriller When the Whistling Stopped follows RPCV Tom Young back to his old Peace-Corps station outside Valdivia in southern Chile after three decades of dreaming about his mostly idyllic tour of duty there. Many of his old friends joyously welcome him back, but there is still a big hole in his heart for Maria Elena, the love of his life who was killed in a tragic accident just before they were to be married in a ramada on the beautiful plot of land Tom had bought for his retirement.
But upon his return, Tom is saddened by more than his departed enamorada. The reforestation he had worked on as a Volunteer has come back to haunt him in the guise of rampant logging in his beloved Cufeo, and there is a fox in what had been a pastoral henhouse in the person of Ivan Morales, the CEO of a nearby paper mill on the Las Cruces River whose deceptive circumvention of Chile’s environmental laws is decimating the area’s signature black-necked swans which depend upon its pristine waters for their habitat.
Surfacing to combat the situation are Amanda Montoya, a brilliant eco-biology student at the local university who as Maria Elena’s niece is a dead ringer for her, and Carlos Mueller, a dashing investigative journalist from Santiago is as much captivated by Amanda’s beauty as Tom was by her paternal aunt thirty years before. But Tom is not left alone to team up with this couple in fighting Sr. Morales. Amanda’s maternal aunt Lilia Gonzalez, a talented wildlife sculptor working in the medium of the native hardwoods who had been brutally raped when she was adolescent during Tom’s service, is rejuvenated by the returned Volunteer’s desire to ameliorate the harmful effects of logging on the ecology of his old village, and Tom discovers in her a full partner for all his dreams.
While the use of American cultural clichés in the minds of his Chilean characters occasionally strikes a dissonant note (see, e.g., Amanda thinking another aunt to be a “fireball” who kept her family on an “even keel” at p. 15), his careful plotting of their and Tom’s struggles through to the denouement makes the book an exciting and satisfying read. Without revealing any of its plot’s unexpected turns, it can be unequivocally said that the novel’s four principal adherents for bio-diversity are realistically drawn with significant depth, so as they are inexorably carried to their individual crises, the reader anxiously cares about what happens to each one of them.
In the course of bringing his story to a well-paced close, Mather convincingly shows a familiarity with the way the Chilean legal system operates, an insight into the risks of over-medication, and a reverence for the people and landscape of rural Chile. A good example of the last attribute is the description of the night when Carlos and Amanda reconnoiter the paper mill.
. . . They slowly rowed upstream to the shallow area near some reeds. The moon was up early, dimming the stars while bathing the river and shore in silvery light. Carlos rows smoothly. The only sounds were the plunge and dripping of the oars. (p. 82)
And the story is brought to a memorable close when the mind of a black-necked swan is entered as (s)he is able to return to the Las Cruces natural habitat and poignantly whistle once again to his friends still there . . ..
Richard M. Grimsrud was stationed in Bihar, India as a health-transport and later a drought-relief Volunteer from 1965–67. After serving a year as a VISTA Volunteer for the Neighborhood Legal Services Program in Newark, New Jersey, he secured a JD degree from Harvard in 1971, and then principally practiced employment law and taught Native American Law and Government in Flagstaff, Arizona. In 2005, he was awarded a Masters in Creative Writing (Fiction) by Northern Arizona University and has since written the Norzona Quartet of novels about that region as well as a novel about Bihar entitled Mata Naveena.