Biologist Angela Haynes leads a solitary life at a penguin research station in Patagonia. Her daily activities revolve around, well, penguins: examining their burrows, listening to the relentless cries of the birds, and occasionally stitching her hand after encounters with the creatures’ formidable beaks. This world is starkly beautiful, full of long, dark nights and unique creatures that have claimed this landscape over countless generations. A few months every year, the tourist trail opens, and this isolated corner of the globe is glimpsed by more than just its animal natives and the few, sometimes lonely souls who tirelessly study them.
The Tourist Trail, the first novel from author John Yunker, gives its readers access to the often unseen places and faces on the front lines of the animal protection movement. The story opens with Angela, a woman so devoted to the penguin colony where she lives and studies that she has no human connections. She waits for Diesel like a lover who was supposed to be home hours ago; he is a male penguin. When a strange man washes ashore in his place, Angela begins to study him instead. The man is Aeneas, the leader of CDA (Cetacean Defense Alliance) and the captain of its vessel, The Arctic Tern. He had an accident while piloting his ship through the Southern Ocean on the prowl for whaling and fishing vessels. After a few details about Aeneas’ life and his work emerge, Angela is left with nothing but questions. Is this plump, drunken sailor of a man a hero or a terrorist? Is Angela making the greatest difference for the animals she loves by studying them on shore, or are Aeneas and his crew actively changing the world with each sunken poaching ship?
This immensely readable and exciting novel brings together the seemingly disjointed lives of characters who share a common thread: whether they know it or not, their purpose is to be devoted to the cause of helping animals. The recipe for this book is as varied as the lives of the characters it follows: a heaping spoonful of romantic melodrama, a generous sprinkle of adventure story and a dash of war epic create an engrossing novel that is tempting to devour in a few days. As the book sails toward its icy climax, Angela leaves her comfort zone to serve the only creatures to whom she is truly devoted. Aeneas returns to sea to hunt the whalers, eluding the FBI agent who is tracking his every move. Yunker crafts these characters with remarkable generosity and tenderness, but he does not refrain from presenting them as flawed animals. They have devoted themselves so much to their causes that their last priority is often their own well-being — Aeneas seems to run on lollipops and whiskey. They remain tireless because they have no human partners to support them when they simply need a moment’s rest. The effect is powerful, as these characters emerge as real-life warriors to admire; for all their good deeds, we do not want to be like them, but rather sympathize with their passionate journey.
The Tourist Trail is epic, sprawling and strikingly cinematic (I couldn’t stop imagining Aeneas as the bear-like, bearded Joaquin Phoenix of recent months; yes, my suggested cast is all-vegan). The prose is breezy and accessible, like a story told by a friend, but also full of rich and detailed descriptions. We are taken down the tourist trail to view up-close the lives of people who are committed to fighting — often literally — for animal rights. As a vegan and animal advocate, this book is abundantly rewarding because aspects of the animal protection movement infiltrate every chapter; for once, the characters are more like you. The most startling revelations in this book are about the dangers of modern fishing practices. Angela sees her penguins dwindling because their food supply is being sucked dry: forced to swim hundreds of miles out to sea to find enough fish, they are often killed by commercial hooks and nets on their journey. Also keenly aware of the unjust cruelty of these practices is Aeneas:
“As long as there are fishermen out there, I’ll be out there. Fishermen don’t fish anymore. They obliterate, slaughter, expunge. They use vacuums, for fuck’s sake. That’s not fishing. That’s extermination. When you raise cattle, you at least feed them. But fishermen don’t feed fish. They just take. They even take the food the fish eat.”
As Our Hen House’s Jasmin and Mariann recently learned in their interview with Yunker on the podcast, the author spent time as a volunteer with a penguin census for The Penguin Project in Patagonia. He learned about how penguins are a “sentinel” species, sensitive to changes in the ocean’s ecosystem as a whole, as they span much of the world’s Southern ocean. Diesel, the male penguin, is based on a real penguin named Turbo, who showed extraordinary affection for his human handlers and even made his nest in the shelter of the researchers’ truck. The Magellanic Penguin colony at Punta Tombo, the inspiration for where Angela studies in the novel, declined by 23.1% in the 2 decades between 1986 and 2007, and this disturbing trend appears to be continuing. As Yunker says in the podcast interview, everybody likes penguins, and their popularity makes them perfect candidates as media symbols for the necessity of vigorous marine protection. Also, it would make the movie version of The Tourist Trail even more irresistible to audiences (casting director: give me a call). The other real-life inspiration for the animal warriors in this novel is Sea Shepherd, the conservation society that takes its fight for animal freedom to the seas using, according to its website, “innovative, direct-action tactics.” The scenes of The Tourist Trail set aboard CDA’s Arctic Tern are the most enthralling moments of the book: they left me feeling like a hardcore animal-rights pirate. And in the story’s nail-biting climax, when the separate lives of its characters collide in the face of animal cruelty, all the larger issues of the book give way to moment-to-moment survival. What I found most interesting in The Tourist Trail was its fascinating characters, settings and crisscrossing plotlines, but by the end, I saw our planet as these characters see it: pristine, fragile and in desperate need of our help.
Win a free copy of The Tourist Trail by John Yunker! To enter, email contest (at) ourhenhouse.org and note that you are entering the drawing to win a copy of The Tourist Trail. You must include your full name and full mailing address or your entry won’t be considered. Only one entry per household please. In order to be considered, you must enter no later than midnight on Friday, September 17, 2010. The winner will be contacted via email between September 18-24, 2010. The winner will be selected by a random drawing. Please note that we received a free copy of The Tourist Trail for review — as well as giveaway copies — sent by the author. No goods or services were exchanged for the books.