Clinging to the edge

19th May 1995 at 01:00
Patrick Bailey on landscape and lifestyles in the People and Places series. PEOPLE AND PLACES SERIES. THE ARCTIC AND ITS PEOPLE. By Susan Bullen. 0 7502 0487 7.

THE AUSTRALIAN OUTBACK AND ITS PEOPLE. By Kate Darian-Smith and David Lowe. 0 7502 1397 3.

THE PrAIRIES AND THEIR PEOPLE. By David Flint. 0 7502 0486 9.

ISLANDS OF THE PACIFIC RIM AND THEIR PEOPLE. By Robert Macdonald. 0 7502 12144.

THE GANGES DELTA AND ITS PEOPLE. By David Cumming. 0 7502 1146 6. Wayland Pounds 9.99 each. Age range 11 - 14

These five books for upper primary and lower secondary libraries, are studies of marginal places and peoples in the modern world. They show how ways of life, whether traditional, as in the case of the Inuit, or modern, as in the case of prairie farmers, are everywhere being affected by pressures from the advanced industrial nations and international organisations to "develop". Today, no place is remote if it happens to contain something marketable.

The areas selected are marginal in various ways. The Arctic is the ocean and its surrounding lands, a vast region of high latitude and cold climates. The Australian interior and to a lesser extent the Prairies are defined by harsh, dry climatic conditions on the margins of the easily habitable world. The western Pacific peoples are marginal to the great central ocean which unites them with one another and with powerful nations to the south and east. The inhabitants of the Ganges delta live in an environment which is marginal in the sense that relentless population growth has pushed settlement beyond the limits of safety on to lands which are perpetually at risk from flood.

The books all follow a standard pattern. They begin by describing the natural environment and significant events in recent history. Traditional ways of life are described, then recent intrusions and interventions from the "advanced" parts of the world. Lines of possible future development are sketched out. There are suggestions for further reading, a glossary and an index. The text is clear and direct, suitable for 11 to 14-year-olds. Illustrations are numerous, clear and generally instructive. Maps are simple and need reinforcement from a good atlas.

The Arctic and Its People is least satisfactory because it tries to do too much. No one can give more than the sketchiest account of life in the poleward margins of North America, Greenland and Eurasia in a book this short. Unwisely, an igloo is shown on page 15, otherwise the illustrations are of the modern Arctic. There is some useful case-study material. The book generally views the Arctic from outside. Readers who would like to know what the Inuit think about recent "development" are recommended to try Peter Hoeg's novel, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (1992). The Australian Outback is to be commended for its balanced account of the joint ways of life gradually being worked out by First Australians and Euro-Australians in a land of immense difficulties, opportunities and beauty. It is good to find poems (by Dorothea Mackellar and Henry Lawson) in a geography book. The evocative ballads of A B "Banjo" Paterson might be added to the reading list.

The Prairies is a very good synthesis of physical, historical and human geography. Its photographs are particularly well chosen for their substantial teaching content. Islands of the Pacific Rim (western only) , like The Arctic and Its People, attempts to encompass an enormous and profoundly varied area, with considerable success. The overriding message here is of growing, inevitable Japanese domination.

The Ganges Delta, having a more precise focus, is more successful in giving detailed accounts of people-and-environment relationships in finite space. Here, human beings are shown locked into a struggle for survival with a natural environment which is dominated absolutely by events in far-off Central Asian mountains.

This is a useful library series, with some good material. The books are hardback, reasonably durable and not too expensive.

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