Monday, December 21, 2015

A Holiday Break: Continental Drift by Russell Banks

Books are always the best holiday gift for me. The only thing I like better than the anticipation of reading a long sought after title is the fondness that comes with remembering the discovery of an unexpected treasure.

As I look back on all the books I've profiled here in 2015, the one I'd most like to revisit is Continental Drift by Russell Banks. I blogged about it back in July, and included the following excerpt from one of the book's early chapters:

It’s as if the creatures residing on this planet in these years, the human creatures, millions of them traveling singly and in families, in clans and tribes, traveling sometimes as entire nations, were a subsystem inside the larger system of currents and tides, of winds and weather, of drifting continents and shifting, uplifting, grinding, cracking land masses. It’s as if the poor forked creatures who walk, sail and ride on donkeys and camels, in trucks, buses and trains from one spot on this earth to another were all responding to unseen, natural forces, as if it were gravity and not war, famine or flood that made them move in trickles from hillside villages to gather along the broad, muddy riverbanks lower down and wait for passage on rafts down the river to the sea and over the sea on leaky boats to where they collect in eddies, regather their lost families and few possessions, set down homes, raise children and become fruitful once again. We map and measure jet streams, weather patterns, prevailing winds, tides and deep ocean currents; we track precisely scarps, fractures, trenches and ridges where the plates atop the earth’s mass drive against one another; we name and chart the Southeast and Northeast Trades and the Atlantic Westerlies, the tropical monsoons and the doldrums, the mistrals, the Santa Ana and the Canada High; we know the Humboldt, California and Kuroshio currents--so that, having traced and enumerated them, we can look on our planet and can see that all the way to its very core the sphere inhales and exhales, rises and falls, swirls and whirls in a lovely, disciplined dance in time. It ages and dies and is born again, constantly, through motion, creating and recreating its very self, like a uroborous, the snake that devours its tail.

It’s a tip-off, I said about this excerpt back in July. Banks wants us to understand from the very beginning of his novel that the movements his characters will make, and, of course, by inclusion the movements we all make--movements not just in space but also in time and social position--are as natural, timeless and cataclysmic as the shifting of the Earth’s tectonic plates.

And the drama that follows comes in the juxtaposed trajectories of two characters, one who understands these forces, and a second, a kind of everyman that represents the aimlessness of much of American culture, who does not. Most of us, Banks reminds us through this character, are people whose very lives are formed by these tectonic movements, and who are completely oblivious to their powers and their impact on their lives. We’re like primitives, but primitives disconnected from the forces of nature, clutching the totems and talismans of an orderly, modern life, thinking they are what keep us safe, when they are nothing but shadows, instilled with impotent power by our own misconstrued beliefs.

It’s an amazing novel. As you enjoy your holiday break, I hope you find some time to curl up with a good book like it. I know I will.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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