It’s as if the creatures residing on this planet in these years, the human creatures, millions of them traveling singly and in families, in clans and tribes, traveling sometimes as entire nations, were a subsystem inside the larger system of currents and tides, of winds and weather, of drifting continents and shifting, uplifting, grinding, cracking land masses.
Through the years, much has been said about Continental Drift and probably equally as much about the book’s author, Russell Banks. Born into a blue-collar family, Banks led a tumultuous young life stealing a car and running away from home at 16 only to return and enroll in college before dropping out – leading him to hitchhike to Florida, where he got married, became a father and was divorced by the time he was 20. And, that’s just the beginning.
Banks returned to his New England roots and tried to be what his family expected – a plumber like his father – but he wasn’t able to quiet the voices that told him writing was a complete waste of time which led him to enroll in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he graduated from at age 27. By age 35, he wrote his first novel and by 45, he published Continental Drift, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a book whom many consider his finest piece of work.
Continental Drift is the story of Bob Dubois, a 30-year old oil burner repairman in Catamount, New Hampshire and of Vanise Dorsinville, a young mother from Allanche, Haiti. Geographically, socially, physically and economically there couldn’t be two more diverse characters and yet they both share a desire for a better life and believe Florida is the promised land. Willing to walk away from everything they’ve known, they both set out with their families on a joint collision course to a land that isn’t what it appears to be.
Back in the late 1970’s (when the story begins), Florida was in the early stages of its modern-day development marked by a boom in real estate and tourism with the promise of endless beaches, days of sunshine, and a new life, a fresh start. What Bob and Vanise didn’t realize is that “the more a man trades off his known life, the one in front of him that came to him by birth and the accidents and happenstance of youth, the more of that he trades for dreams of a new life, the less power he has.” But this is a hard lesson to learn and one in which a gambler pays dearly.
Banks is a gifted storyteller and is known for his depictions of the common man, the blue collar worker who lives paycheck to paycheck and finds every day a struggle. At times his own worst enemy, Bob Dubois can clearly see the dilemma others face but he doesn’t see himself having faced the same decisions in his own life. When he first confronts a Haitian refugee, he thinks:
They risk everything to get away from their island, give up everything, their homes, their families, forsake all they know, and then strike out across open sea for a place they’ve only heard about. Why do they do that?..Why do they throw away everything they know and trust, no matter how bad it is, for something they know nothing about and can never trust?
Vanise, for her part is a woman beaten down by life. Abuse and brutality takes its toll but she moves forward and is almost a by-product of her circumstances relying on others and her religious faith to explain the unexplainable and the unimaginable. She is more than anything else a survivor and her journey is worth reading because she was one among many human beings – boatloads of Haitians – who risked everything to reach the coast of Florida.
Unaware of each other’s existence, Bob and Vanise struggle and push forward until their worlds collide in a dramatic conclusion that is both surprising and predictable.
…maybe, just like me, you’ll get what you want. Whatever that is. But you’ll have to give something away for it, if you haven’t already. And when you get what you want. it’ll turn out to be not what you wanted after all, because it will always be worth less than what you gave away for it. In the land of the free, nothing’s free.