We recently looked at Philip Pullman’s The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, and some of the ways in which volcanoes might be portrayed in literature. Mount Merapi was featured in quite a fantastical sense: it was home to Razvani the Fire-Fiend, who granted a young girl the secrets of firework-making. This time, we are taking a different approach to volcanoes in literature, looking at the ways in which volcanoes can be portrayed realistically whilst still remaining a literary device. We are turning to Journey to the Volcano: a story featuring Mount Etna in Sicily, written by the UEA’s current chancellor, Rose Tremain.
George’s parents are separated. His father is English, and his mother is Sicilian; she moved to England with George’s father and insists on calling her son “Giorgio”. One day, George’s mother arrives at his school and steals him away to Sicily. His grandmother, Violetta, doesn’t have long to live, and his mother wants the whole (Sicilian) side of the family to be together for when the time comes. George must adapt to his new life in Sicily where everything about the culture is strange to him, and live in the shadow of Mt. Etna, which rumbles continuously in the distance…
Mt. Etna is not home to any Fire-Fiends to help George in his situation, but nevertheless, the volcano still interacts with the story in a number of interesting ways. Upon arriving, it is quite clear that the Sicilian way of life is entirely unfamiliar to George. The volcano helps to illustrate that the environment is just as hostile to George as his Sicilian family seems to be.
“It was still early morning, but the sun was fierce. A pebble hit George in the shoulder. It had been thrown at him by Fabio. He ignored it. Guido jumped down from his rock and laughed. […] Smoke from the fire now rose way above the rock walls of the den. It was like a tiny imitation of the smoke that came from the volcano a few miles above them.”
Towards the end of the story, the Mt. Etna erupts. In spite of the eruption being described in a literary sense, as opposed to a scientific account, the novel is scientifically accurate and records the cultural impact of such an eruption perfectly.
“A slight earth tremor had been felt here. Cracks had appeared in some of the buildings. People were loading their possessions into cars and onto carts and barrows. The place wasn’t safe, they said. The buildings could fall. Another earthquake could follow.”
However, the eruption is not simply present in the story for excitement. Mount Etna forces George and his Sicilian family to band together in order to escape the lava flows. Upon witnessing the eruption on television, George’s father makes an attempt to fly to Sicily and reconcile with George’s mother. In this sense, the eruption acts as a plot device- it forces aspects of the story that were previously at odds or in conflict to come together and move forward. Much like The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, the volcano in this story enables the protagonist to come to some form of character-building realisation. However, this time the volcano is not inhabited by any mythological creatures, nor does it interact with the characters directly. It is not even a respect for the volcano that allows George and his family to reconcile, but rather the dangerous situation that they are thrown into by its activity.
Rose Tremain’s Journey to the Volcano was published in 1985 by Hamish Hamilton Ltd.