Book Report:  ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ By James Rebanks

A major new talent redefines the literature of rural life.

Old world met new when a shepherd in the English Lake District impulsively started a Twitter account. A routine cell phone upgrade left author James Rebanks with a pretty decent camera and a pre-loaded Twitter app–the tools to share his way of life with the world. And what began as a tentative experiment became an international phenomenon.

James has worked the land for years, as did his father, and his father before him. His family has lived and farmed in the Lake District of Northern England as long as there have been written records (since 1420) and possibly much longer. And while the land itself has inspired great poets and authors we have rarely heard from the people who tend it. One Twitter account has changed all that, and now James Rebanks has broken free of the 140-character limit and produced “the book I have wanted to write my whole life.” The Shepherd’s Life is a memoir about growing up amidst a magical, storied landscape, of coming of age in the 1980s and 1990s among hills that seem timeless, and yet suffused with history. Broken into the four seasons, the book chronicles the author’s daily experiences at work with his flock and brings alive his family and their ancient way of life, which at times can seem irreconcilable with the modern world.

An astonishing original work, The Shepherd’s Life is an intimate look from inside a seemingly ordinary life, one that celebrates the meaning of place, the ties of family to the land around them, and the beauty of the past. It is the untold story of the Lake District, of a people who exist and endure out of sight in the midst of the most iconic literary landscape in the world.

Review:

There is the odd time that you read a book and feel transformed – it’s rare.  A book on shepherding in the wilds of the Lake District you say? ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ left me inspired and ready to learn about a lifestyle far from the streetcar lulls, honking horns and pollution of downtown Toronto.  Who knew such a calm, simple read could open my mind far from any yoga class has done in weeks.

‘The Shepherd’s Life’ by James Rebanks is a rich and decadent read.  Full of sink into your bed moments and aching of picturesque Lake District painted moments.

“When my grandfather bought our farm in the fells, he took us into the landscape of another breed of sheep, the Herdwick,  Herdwicks are born black with white ear tips, but change colour as they age, until they have a white, hoar-frosted head and legs, and a blue-grey fleece.  They are arguably the toughest mountain sheep in Britain.  Snow.  Rain.  Hail.  Sleet.  Wind.  Weeks of dour wet weather – no problem.  At one day old, with a good mother, they are almost indestructible, regardless of the weather, with a thick leathery skin and a carpet-like black fleece that keeps them fry and warm.  The ewes can live on less than any other sheep in these conditions and come off the fells with a lamb of value in the autumn.  Recent scientific research has shown that Herdwicks are genetically rather special; they have in them a primitive genome that few other British sheep carry.  Their nearest relatives are in Sweden, Finland, Iceland and the northern island of Orkney.  It is believed that the Herdwicks’ ancestors lived on the islands of the Wadden Sea, near the Frisian Islands, or further north in Scandinavia.  Local myth has it that they came with the Vikings on their boats, and the science now suggests this is true.  Since they arrived they have been selectively bred for more than a thousand years to suit this landscape.”

An ex-boyfriend took me to the Lake District for my 29th birthday when I lived in the UK.  I remember it being such a magical place, full of damp rolling hills, wandering sheep and an esthetic that you can’t caption fully in a picture.  Rebanks does a tremendous job in engaging the reader into his shepherding life that somehow parallels our own lives in countries far away with dashes of a work ethic, history and a beautiful fabric of stories that instantly take our minds and body on a break from our on reality.

“My job is simple:  get around the fields and feed and shepherd the different flocks of ewes – dealing with any issues that arise.  First rule of shepherding: it’s not about you; it’s about the sheep and the land.  Second rule:  sometimes you can’t win.  Third rule:  shut up, and go and do the work.”

If you are a fan of Twitter, Rebanks delivers daily tweets almost like they were lifted off the pages of his book with photo evidence of his hill ramblings.  They are poetic and yet full of perfectly British sarcastic giggles which brim of sheep dogs, a variety of sheep, familial nods and Herdwick shepherding gems.

Catch James Rebanks tomorrow at Globe & Mail Ben McNally Books for Brunch (May 31, 2015).

Here are all the details:

When:

Sunday, May 31, 2015 – 10:00am

Where:

King Edward Hotel

37 King St. East

Toronto, ON  M5C 1E9

Brunch is served in the Vanity Fair Ballroom on the 2nd floor of the King Edward Hotel. Tickets are $50.00 each (taxes included).

Please call (416) 361-0032 with your credit card information to reserve a ticket.

http://penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/243551/shepherds-life#9780385682855

http://www.benmcnallybooks.com/?q=globe_mail_ben_mcnally_books_and_brunch_may_31_2015

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