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Mara and Dann by Doris Lessing: Book Review

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Doris Lessing‘s Mara and Dann was published several years ago; I wrote this review in 2008. Lately I’ve become obsessed with the book, thinking about it every time I hear about floods in Rhode Island unseen for 200 years; or see pictures on TV of high school kids in the Midwest piling up sandbags to hold back the river. Do people recognize what is happening? I mean, it seems like we just go on with our daily lives, oblivious to the upheavals all around us. At least, read this book: Doris Lessing is a seer, and Mara and Dann will scare the pants off you!

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m freaking out. The floods in the Midwest and the fires in California have me thinking that the effects of global warming are no longer theoretical. Nor are they just a future possibility: it’s happening. While it’s true that this is fire season in California, some of the firestorms now raging were sparked by unusually powerful bolts of lightning. People who’ve been fighting these fires for decades say they’ve never seen anything like it. That’s a scary refrain I keep hearing: things are happening to our planet that have never happened before. Until now I was worried about my grandchildren’s future, but I figured I’d be gone by the time the worst was upon us. Now I’m not so sure.

I keep reflecting on a couple of relatively recent books by my favorite writer, Doris Lessing. She’s always had the gift of foresight, and in Mara and Dann: An Adventure, and its sequel, The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog, her psychic abilities are front and center. The first book, an old-fashioned adventure tale, begins in a far-distant future on the continent of Ifrik–Africa, the only continent not submerged in ice. The two main characters, a sister and brother, are rescued as children from warriors and raised by a kindly woman among the Rock People, whose tribal name reflects lives that are beyond difficult. Water dragons, scorpions, and beetles the size of dogs threaten human existence. There is never enough food or water, and people slit each other’s throats for a piece of dried fruit. Dann leaves the village just as war and famine are forcing the Rock People to migrate North, but Mara remains to care for the old woman who raised them. Eventually Dann returns for Mara, and their journey North, the heart of the book, begins.

The siblings travel through drought-ridden towns, abandoned cities, military outposts, and apparently thriving regions that are in fact doomed. Their adventures are gripping, and make for a real page-turner. But Mara and Dann is, of course, more than an action-packed thriller: along the way the siblings learn lessons—always the substance of a Lessing story—about history, human nature, politics, and the prospects for a planetary future.

Although written in deceptively simple language, and without any of the political sermons for which Lessing is famous, Mara and Dann still manages to convey the messages she’s been putting out, like urgent SOS’s, for decades: this is an uncontrollable, cataclysmic universe; human beings know less than nothing about the forces governing our circumstances; we fail to learn from history, and are therefore doomed to repeat it. In Mara and Dann we see the logical results of a world of displaced populations, who manage to go on believing everything will be fine despite all evidence to the contrary.

But the most important message of this Lessing SOS is, simply put, WEATHER RULES! Mara and Dann, along with the rest of the struggling population, can’t do much else with their lives when they’re at the mercy of one disaster after another. All their time and energy is spent coping with the upheavals of a planet that’s doing pretty much what it’s doing now, only on an even grander scale. As icecaps melt and flood one area after another, populations of refugees move on, only to find various conditions inhospitable to life wherever they go.

After accompanying Mara and Dann through a myriad of harrowing experiences, we can’t help but hope for a happy ending as a payoff, even knowing it would be out of character for this author to deliver one. Yet Lessing does come close to a happily-ever-after of sorts—it’s just that the characters she’s invented could never be content with one. It turns out that what sustained and motivated them was the rigorous quest for survival, and the people they’ve become as a result of that quest could never be satisfied with something so simple as happiness, or even stability. The reader is left with the sense that “this too shall pass,” that new ice formations will creep down and one day cover Ifrik, or will melt and flood the continent, or the drought below will sweep upwards, or… Whatever happens, all is transitory—individual lives, societies, the planet, and even the shape of this wild, predictably unpredictable universe. It’s not a pretty picture. As I said, I’m freaking out.

Doris Lessing


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