There is a moment in Christina Soontornvat's All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys' Soccer Team when the reader comes to a realization. The moment comes rather early, as Soontornvat describes the Tham Luang cave system: the big, airy entrance chamber and the sections that "force visitors into a crouch and then a crawl, where the ceiling drops to just a few feet high." She goes on to explain:
Here, cavers are well beyond the "twilight zone," the part of the cave where light from the outside world still reaches. Without a flashlight the darkness is complete. If you are claustrophobic, this is where you turn around.
This is the moment. This is when you feel the fear in your gut, the barely suppressed panic in your spirit. This is when you know you would turn around.
But those boys and their coach did not. They crouched and crawled and even waded in chest-deep water as they explored. In every way, they were braver than I am. The floodwaters came on unexpectedly, trapping them deep in the cave system, and for weeks most of the planet was rapt, keeping half an ear on the story of those boys. Even though we know this story has a happy ending, Soontornvat has crafted a detailed narrative that wraps the reader in the tension of this impossible rescue, taking us back to the days when no one knew if they were alive, if they could be found, if they could be saved. But everyone was willing to try.
Soccer is, in my opinion, the ultimate team sport. It is, as they say, the beautiful game. Sure, there are superstars, usually goal-scoring divas with their celebratory drama. But the game at its best is like a finely-choreographed ballet, each player vital, each possession quietly contributing to the overall goal. Even when your team is dominating, and your goal-keeper is mostly idle, he is a stalwart figure. He cannot relax; he must remain engaged, in tune with each moment, each player on his side. There are elements of the game that are under-appreciated, but they are never underestimated by those who know the game.
With this book, Soontornvat has given us a window into this remarkable rescue, highlighting every key play, even the ones others have overlooked. From the locals who worked unending hours to keep the rescue workers supplied with food and other necessities to the unlikely partnerships between rural farmers and oil companies and one determined Thai-American architecture student; from the US Armed Forces to the Thai SEAL team; from cave diving specialists in the UK to the Thai leadership: every part worked together to accomplish what should have been impossible. Beyond the miracle of those boys' lives, that's the piece that surprised me, the element I will take away from this book -- the teamwork.
Here's just one example. Once they determined that they would have to risk diving the boys out, something that had literally never been attempted before, the team sprang into action. They would need a plan, of course, a medical doctor with a speciality in anesthesiology, and full-face dive masks that would fit a child. The only place the masks could be found was in a small dive shop in the UK, and they only had two. These two precious masks "are rushed to the airport in London with a full police escort."
Doesn't that image give you chills? Even just the barest hope of saving these children has an international team working together to secure whatever is needed, sacrificing whatever is required (local farmers saw their rice paddies completely destroyed by the pumped-out water and asked for nothing in return). This is collective hope at its utmost. It is a reminder that every life is worth the effort, that we can do impossible things when we work together as a team.
The cover of my local paper today featured a photo of a woman sitting on her front porch with her young son. In the accompanying article, she is quoted as saying, "We decided about two months ago to stop living in fear." This statement is a tricky one. It seems like the kind of empowering mantra that we should embrace, and perhaps there are times when it is just what we need. Today, though, in the face of a crushing pandemic, a compromised democracy, and the reality of climate change, I can't support such a statement. And Charlotte McConaghy's Migrations is part of why.
Perhaps you caught the subtext in that statement. The article is about the varying ways we might choose to spend the holidays, and this woman declares with confidence, "I'm not changing anything. We are celebrating as we normally would." She invoked freedom from fear as part of her commitment to things as they have always been. And this is where McConaghy's brilliant, devastating, and painfully hopeful novel enters the conversation.
Migrations is the story of Franny Stone and her decision to follow the migration of the last arctic terns on the planet. To do so, she falls in with the crew of the Saghani, one of the last fishing vessels still trying to draw a living out of the depleted ocean. The arc of their efforts and the unlikely community they build is one strand of this novel. It is the main highway of narrative, the one all the side roads shoot off from. Each offshoot draws the reader back and forth through time, revealing fragments from Franny's traumatic youth and unconventional adulthood. Her life is a mystery, and each new revelation can only be glimpsed, seen through a kaleidoscope.
Another strand of this book is about climate change or what the world might look like in the near future. This world is one where scientists are working to preserve and protect what species they can, focusing primarily on those that offer humanity something, a stance that prompts Franny to ask:
But wasn't this attitude the problem to begin with? Our overwhelming, annihilating selfishness? What of the animals that exist purely to exist, because millions of years of evolution have carved them into miraculous being?
Our overwhelming, annihilating selfishness. It is difficult to align that condemnation with such basic desires as to spend the holidays with family, to eat a hamburger, to drive a car. But in its quiet way, this book demands we see them as such. Our decisions have consequences. This truth is easy to teach children and nearly impossible to convince ourselves of. In McConaghy's novel, humanity is past those kinds of decisions, forced now to face their consequences. When Franny's husband, one of the scientists trying to save what he can, tells her of the crow's extinction, he laments:
Eighty percent of all wild animal life has died. They say most of the rest will go in the next decade or two. We'll keep farmed creatures. Those will survive because we must keep our bellies full of their flesh. And domesticated pets will be fine because they let us forget about the rest, the ones dying. Rats and cockroaches will survive, no doubt, but humans will still cringe when they see them and try to exterminate them as though they are worth nothing, even though they are fucking miracles. But the rest, Franny. Everything else. What happens when the last of the terns die? Nothing will ever be as brave again.
This is a chilling description, not least because of what does not change. Everything has changed in this possible future, except perhaps humanity. There they are, still doing things as they always have while the world disintegrates around them. Despite that truth, this novel is humming with hope.
How is that possible? I think it goes back to fear. Or, more specifically, what we are fearful of. Franny wrestles throughout with a wildness in her nature, something in her that refuses to allow her to stay, to settle, to put down roots. Franny is afraid that she will hurt those she loves - her husband, Niall, especially. Her fear is not for her own well-being; she is, instead, afraid of the harm she knows herself capable of. And at one point, she seems to be doing exactly as the woman in today's paper did, admitting how much of her leave-taking is rooted in fear and declaring,
It is so perilous, this love, but he's right, I will have no cowardice in my life, not anymore, and I will be no small thing, and I will have no small life.
Take careful note, there. Franny doesn't say she will stop living in fear. She says "I will have no cowardice." Fear evokes one of two responses: fight or flight. In this case, Franny is naming her flight as an act of cowardice, a way of trying to avoid the thing that causes her fear. But the root of her fear is her love for her husband. As any new parent knows, the thing we love the most will be the thing that makes us most afraid. To stop living in fear is to stop living in love. The fear isn't the problem. The problem is our response to it.
What we fear, we will protect against. We will do the hard thing, the impossible thing, the painful thing, the lonely thing because of our fear, not despite it. It is the ferocity of our love that makes us afraid, whether we are talking about people or planets. Migrations is urging us to live in fear. To behave now as though our planet, our communities, the animals and plant life as well as the people, are worth fighting for. And could I have foreseen this truth, I would have seen it on the first page. The epigraph, from Rumi, reads:
Live where you fear to live.
If we survive (the pandemic, the political unrest, the global change in our climate), it will be because we were afraid enough to change our behaviors. We will leave behind the way we've always done things in favor of the possibility of birdsong.