One-Minute Book Reviews

May 7, 2007

Dea Birkett’s ‘Serpent in Paradise,’ a Harrowing Memoir of Pitcairn Island, the Refuge of Bounty Mutineers

An English writer hoped for paradise and found purgatory while living 3,000 miles from the nearest hospital, supermarket and phone booth

Serpent in Paradise. By Dea Birkett. Anchor, 320 pp., $12.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Dea Birkett became enraptured with the idea of going to Pitcairn Island when, as a young writer living in London, she saw Mel Gibson in The Bounty. She knew it was nearly impossible to get permission to visit the remote settlement, a British overseas territory that had neither hotels nor an airstrip.

But Birkett persuaded the Royal Mail to sponsor her trip, booked passage on a chemical tanker and arranged to stay with a family. And in 1991 she lived for four months among the 38 residents of Pitcairn Island, the place where Fletcher Christian and other mutineers from the Bounty settled after casting Captain William Bligh adrift in 1789.

Birkett imagined that she might find a vestigial Eden on a volcanic crag in the South Pacific. Pitcairn lay 3,000 miles from the nearest hospital, supermarket or pay phone booth, and kept in touch with the world by mail and ham radio. It had no cars or currency. The residents, mostly descendants of mutineers, shot breadfruit from trees with guns and carved replicas of the Bounty to trade for cooking oil or other necessities on ships that occasionally passed by on their way to New Zealand.

But life on Pitcairn was so harrowing that within days of her arrival, Birkett had skirted death at least twice. The island seethed with omens – a black albatross, a dead shark, an infestation of rats and the sound of gunfire thudding through the breadfruit-rich valleys. Its residents had suffered from centuries of isolation and physical and emotional inbreeding. Birkett’s host family was by turns warm and so frighteningly aloof that she wondered if they would save her if she had an accident.

Birkett gives such a chilling account of all this in Serpent in Paradise that a descendant of Fletcher Christian said, “I’d like to see her hanged.” Next to her adventures, the experiences of people like Frances Mayes and Elizabeth Gilbert look like visits to a Six Flags theme park. And yet, as fascinating this book is, it leaves the impression that its author knew more than she was telling.

Less than a decade after Serpent in Paradise appeared, the British government investigated charges that rape and child abuse were endemic on Pitcairn. The probe led to the convictions in 2004 of six of its adult male residents. The guilty included the son of Birkett’s host couple, who was living at home during her visit. Given that just over three dozen people inhabited Pitcairn, it’s hard to believe Birkett didn’t sense what was going on and that this doesn’t explain some fears that she ascribes to other causes. If she didn’t suspect all the rape and abuse, she was less astute than she seems. If she did know about it, she chose or was required to pull punches. In some ways, it doesn’t matter. Birkett reveals far more about Pitcairn Island than any Hollywood screenplay. And Serpent in Paradise is the rare book that captures that a place at a pivotal moment in its history, a paradise on the eve of self-destruction.

Best line: Birkett writes of a note she received by mail from an islander: “I was the first recipient of a local letter on Pitcairn since the post office had been founded fifty years earlier.”

Worst line: Birkett’s account of her relationship with the island policeman raises more questions than it answers. It leaves the impression they had consensual one-night stand. In an article on her Web site (“My Hell in Paradise”), Birkett calls the relationship as “an affair” with a man who saw her as “easy prey.” She also includes many lines of conversation in Pitkern, a half-Polynesian, half-English language. Most are easy to understand in context, but a glossary would have helped with some.

Caveat lector: Everyone on Pitcairn called the dark-skinned police officer by his nickname, a racial slur, and Birkett reflects this in the book.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Serpent in Paradise appears in the March 7, 2007, post directly below this one.

Published: August 1998 (Anchor paperback), September 1997 (Anchor hardcover).

Furthermore: Birkett also wrote the award-winning Jella: From Lagos to Liverpool: A Woman at Sea in a Man’s World (Gollancz, 1994), a memoir of her experiences as the only female crew member of a working cargo ship.

Links: You can find an account of the sexual-assault trial of the men in this book by going to www.wikipedia.org and searching the site for “Pitcairn rape trial of 2004.” The convicted received sentences ranging from community service to more than six years in prison, and they have exhausted their appeals. Birkett has several articles about the scandal on her site www.deabirkett.com, including a New York Times op-ed piece “Island of the Lost Girls” that summarizes the case.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Dea Birkett’s ‘Serpent in Paradise,’ a Memoir of Life on Pitcairn Island

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs
Serpent in Paradise
By Dea Birkett

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and intended only for your personal use. The sale or reproduction of this guide in any form is illegal except by public libraries that may copy it for use in their in-house reading groups. Other groups that wish to use this guide should link to this site or use “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

In 1991 Dea Birkett spent four months living among the 38 residents of Pitcairn Island, where Fletcher Christian and other mutineers settled after casting Captain William Bligh adrift from the Bounty in 1789. Birkett hoped to find a vestigial Eden on a volcanic crag 3,000 miles from the nearest hospital, supermarket or pay phone booth. But within days of her arrived she had skirted death at least twice, and her fears grew as she explored an island that seethed with omens – a black albatross, an infestation of rats, the sound of gunfire in valleys where residents shot down breadfruit. In Serpent in Paradise, Birkett tells what was like to be one of the few people permitted to visit the storied refuge of the mutineers, whose exploits have inspired movies that include The Bounty with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins. She describes some of her experiences on the island in articles on www.deabirkett.com that also update material in this remarkable 1997 memoir.

Questions for Reading Groups

1. What did you know about the Mutiny on the Bounty before you read Serpent in Paradise? How did reading the book affect your views of the historical events?

2. Who or what was the “serpent” on Pitcairn?

3. Some people might argue that Birkett violated the privacy or trust of Irma, Ben and Dennis Christian by writing a book about them. If she had their permission to do this, she doesn’t say so. Do you believe that, in this case, the end justifies the means?

4. Many best-selling memoirs describe the experiences of single female travelers. The most recent include Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia (Doubleday, 2006) and Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy (Chronicle, 1996, and Bantam, 2004). How would you compare Serpent in Paradise to such books?

5. Everybody on Pitcairn apparently called a dark-skinned police officer by his nickname, the “N-word,” also used in Serpent in Paradise. American newspapers generally will not print this term. Is its use in the book was justified? What does the word tell you about the islanders?

6. Birkett had a relationship with the married police officer, whose wife and child were away, that she describes through ambiguous lines such as, “Our hands danced across the tabletop.” [Page 219]

She elaborated in an article: “I’ve never had an affair with a married man, before or since. But Pitcairn can make you act in ways that break your principles.” (“My Hell in Paradise,” Sunday Mirror, October 3, 2004.)

Did Birkett persuade you that such the island could make you “break your principles”? Or did you think she was rationalizing?

7. Near the end of Serpent in Paradise, Birkett quotes from Return to Laughter, in which the anthropologist Elenore Smith Bowen writes about her life among the Tiv of West Africa:

“It is an error to assume that to know is to understand and to understand is to like. The greater the extent to which one has participated in a genuinely foreign culture and understood it, the greater the extent to which one realizes that one could not, without violence to one’s personal integrity, be of it. “ [Page 272]

Birkett uses Return to Laughter as a touchstone and takes it “on every journey.” [Page 31] What assaults to her integrity did she face on Pitcairn? Do you agree with Bowen that “it is an error to assume that to know is to understand”?

8. In some ways, Pitcairn was permanently changed by the arrival in 1886 of a Seventh-day Adventist missionary, who caused residents to cut their ties to the Church of England. [Page 16] In other ways, the island seems unaffected by that visit. What role did religion play in residents’ lives?

9. Birkett offers many striking details of life on Pitcairn. Which do you remember best?

10. Less than a decade after Birkett’s visit, the British government investigated charges that rape and child abuse were endemic on Pitcairn. The probe led to the convictions in 2004 of six of its adult male residents. The guilty included Dennis Christian, son of Birkett’s host couple, who was 36 and lived at home during her visit. You can learn more about the scandal by going to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia www.wikipedia.org and searching for “Pitcairn rape trial of 2004.” Is it plausible that Birkett didn’t suspect what was happening on Pitcairn while she was living there? Did you sense that she was pulling punches, either because she chose to or because editors or lawyers required it? What difference does this make to the book?

Extras:

11. A number of movies have been made about the 1789 mutinty. These include Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton; Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) with Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard and Laurence Olivier and The Bounty (1984) with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins. [Pages 262–263] Why do you think the story has so much appeal for filmmakers?

12. When she applied for permission to visit Pitcairn, Birkett was a young single woman. How might her story have differed had she been older, married or a man?

13. Birkett also wrote Spinsters Abroad: Victorian Lady Explorers (Sutton, 2004). And she clearly has some of the spirit of the women in that book. How do her experiences compare to those of any of these women you’ve read about?

14. Can you extrapolate from Pitcairn to other closed or self-contained communities, such as age-specific retirement communities or co-op buildings that require prospective residents to get the approval of a board of the directors?

Vital Statistics:
Serpent in Paradise. Serpent in Paradise. By Dea Birkett. Anchor, 320 pp., $12.95, paperback. Hardcover edition: Doubleday/Anchor, 1997.

A review of Serpent in Paradise appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews, http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com on May 7, 2007, and is archived with the May posts and in the “Memoirs” category.

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© 2007 By Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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