Back in July I was getting a bit restless staying at home and not being able to go to a bookshop. I hate buying paper books on Amazon, their search engine and browsing is pathetic. AbeBooks is a bit better but nothing online will ever replace the joy of a random find in a physical bookshop. This book that we never heard of but that somehow catches our eye. So I started thinking how to get that experience in lockdown and I decided to try some subscription boxes. One of them is Books That Matter, a feminist subscription box and this is the first book that arrived. And the first book I received was The Adventures of China Iron, exactly what I wanted form the experience, a book I would probably never choose myself, a book to challenge me and give me the thrill of exploration.
On top of that there are a lot of goodies that arrive with the book. First of all each edition is accompanied by a newsletter about the book and author, about the entrepreneurs whose products are included and more broadly about the specific month’s topic. You can see how it all looks like below.
Now on to the book, before I start let me just say I had a very vague idea about Martin Fierro. It somewhat rang a bell, but I had no idea what to associate it with. So now I was holding in my hands a book that is a subversive retelling of the poem. Our narrator and the main protagonist is China Fierro, Martin’s young and unwilling wife, who describes her husband as a brute and murderer.
Together with Martin a host of other men is drafted. While China is relieved that he’s gone and potentially she’ll never have to see him again, Liz, a Scottish settler, decides to go and find her husband and to take ownership of the land they are supposed to manage. China joins her in her wagon. And that’s how a beautiful, but also crazy adventure begins.
Initially, they travel through the pampas, just the two of them and the dog Estrella in a wagon. It becomes their whole world in the solitude of the pampas. They teach each other their languages, and Liz starts teaching China about Great Britain. A country so different from Argentina, a country of steam and steel, of speed, a country of hard edges. While to China Argentina is made of flesh and soil, slower, we would now say more organic. And what China accepts as natural in Argentina Liz despises. It is very much a one-way exchange, China in awe of Liz learns from her without question, at least initially. In the exchange Liz gets the adoration she seems to crave. As with many literary journeys, this is one that results in the metamorphosis of China, as Liz dresses her in British clothes, teaches her manners, transforming her at least on the surface.
On their way, they meet Rosario, a gaucho caring about a lamb and herd of cattle. He joins them, shares his difficult story with them and they travel together towards the desert. They know the native Indians are close and are watching them, but they hope to seem harmless enough to be allowed to pass. And so it happens, they arrive at the Fort.
This is where the atmosphere of the book changes completely. Starting with dreamy and lyrical descriptions of the pampas. An almost magical relationship between Liz and China, and Rosario joining them. They were all isolated, within their happy world with only pampas around them. Now they re-enter the world of people and civilization. The world that aims to rule and control nature, rather than roll with it. The world of oppression, of power, of violence. As she comes back to the world she knows Liz also changes completely. China barely recognizes her, but her trust is immense and he follows suit.
After a few weeks, they leave the first and move on their way to take on the land Liz and her husband is supposed to manage. But on their way, they meet the Indians again, and this time the whole world changes yet again. I’ll leave it here, as it is a story worth reading. And if you read Martin Fierro then you probably have a pretty good idea of what follows.
I liked this book a lot, it challenged me in many ways, from the very lyrical descriptions and a deep focus on nature and its substance to the subject matter that was mostly completely foreign to me. Having fully fleshed female characters who own their destiny was also refreshing. Yes, they have to fight against the circumstances, but they have agenda and purpose. It made me realize how rarely that happens in books. There are some moments when China’s naivety is a bit grating, but we can also see how fast she learns and on the other hand how she consciously tries to retain her innocence because she knows there is value in honesty.
All in all, I had a great experience with this subscription box, it got me everything I wanted and more. So if you feel a bit stuck with limited ability to visit bookshops I wholeheartedly recommend exploring various book subscription boxes. I’m testing three now: Books That Matter, How Novel, and The Willoughby Book Club.
Here is my review of Somewhere Close to Happy by Lia Louis that I got from How Novel.
Here is my review of The Atlas of Red and Blues by Devi S. Laskar that I got from The Willoughby Book Club.
Have you tried book subscription boxes? What did you think?