Review – by Amy Turner, Cascada Expeditiones/Cascada Travel, Santiago, Chile.
“It has been said that this land was the last place on earth which God created. That he used all the pieces He had left over, the deserts, plateaux, mountains, rivers, lakes and glaciers. Not wanting to waste anything He threw them all together and created the tail end of the earth.”
This is just one of Margaret Muir’s evocative and memorable descriptions of Patagonia, a land about which so much has been written and repeated. Muir spends a great deal of time creating a sense of the Patagonian landscape in all of its beauty and, at times, savagery. She evokes the constantly changing colours of the Patagonian sky but also takes moments to cover the vast open steppe with its violent winds and sandstorms that rake the land, so the reader is left in no doubt of the formidable wild frontier that Patagonia once represented to most, even until the fairly recent past. She also clearly has a love for animals, vividly describing both domestic animals such as the dogs and horses that travel with their masters, and the wild guanaco, pumas, ostrich-like ñandus and condors that the travellers meet on their journey.
It’s not just the landscape and nature that feel well-researched and rooted in fact. The Condor’s Feather is actually inspired by the real-life travels of fascinating Englishwoman Lady Florence Dixie who rode across the Agentinian pampas in 1878 at the age of just 21, and Muir’s tale bears all of the hallmarks of meticulous historical research. Starting out from her country house in England, our heroine Cynthia “Thia” Beresford heads first to Liverpool from where she embarks on a lengthy steamship journey to Punta Arenas in Chilean Patagonia. We are treated to all kinds of intriguing details about the boat itself and steamboat travel in general during the late 1800s that lend a feeling of real authenticity to the story. On arriving in Patagonia, the reader learns about the history of the native peoples, the colonisers and the cowboys that roam the land along with Thia herself, without it ever feeling like a history lesson.
Thia, meanwhile, is everything that a Victorian lady shouldn’t be. Outspoken, strong-willed and a champion of feminist issues long before they came to the fore of most people’s minds. Muir also deals with issues of class at Thia’s country estate, Huntingley, in the English countryside. As readers, we see into the lives of both the upper classes and the army of downstairs staff that make their life of ease and leisure possible, with the eternal appeal created by the tension between the two.
Back in Patagonia, although there is a hint of romantic tension from the moment that Thia meets mysterious Welsh stranger Euan, The Condor’s Feather is definitely more adventure travel story than it is pure romance novel. Although Muir makes us wait until the dying pages to give up Euan’s dark secrets, the real twist is not the revelation of his past at all, but rather his relationship with Thia. Without wanting to spoil the ending, it’s worth mentioning that for a book that could stray dangerously close to swooning Victorian damsels falling at the feet of strong, silent cowboys, Muir deftly sidesteps these clichés and serves up an ending full of promise and free of stereotype.
The Condor’s Feather is an easy and relatively quick read that canters through grasslands, mountains and rivers, mixing cowboys and indians, criminals and turn-of-the-century aristocrats. All in all, a great piece of Patagonia holiday fiction!
Read The Condor’s Feather if...
•You’re a regular viewer of Downton Abbey.
•You’re planning to go horseback riding in Patagonia.
•You’d like to know more about Patagonia’s turbulent past.
The Condor's Feather is available as an e-book for in paperback.