Reviewer Matthew W Larrimore
Interest in Eco-lit is rising faster than sea levels and Jean Ryan’s “Strange Company;” the author’s 3rd full-length publication and 2nd collection of short stories may just breach the levy for some readers. Ryan plies her considerable writing skills in this 118 page, 20 story collection that returns to this fertile genre for the author.
The reader will enjoy the bright, intelligent, well-written narrative as Ryan harvests verdant insights into the creatures that surround and fill our natural world. The first essay examines interspecies relationships, the second, the life span of a Mayfly among other things, the third, the precarious fragility of the habitat of the South American Quetzal. The piece on the Praying Mantis may have the reader shorter of breath than a smog-induced asthma attack. The book’s range is quite remarkable and includes the inspiration found in albino deer, the medical miracle of the horseshoe crab, the endearing monogamy of pinecone lizards, and so on.
How do humans fit into the web of the natural world? The narrative puzzles and seems to find one answer, and then another. Time and again Ryan’s narrator enriches each story by insightfully musing on the larger meaning of those stories. “Strange Company” reminds us, our world is filled with natural wonders that are worthy of our attention and deserve to have time and energy invested in them to safeguard their future. She has faith that we will rise to the occasion. “I believe, I have to believe, we will find an answer to this mania [of human destruction/carelessness], that harmony [with the natural world] is possible, that what seems hopeless will shift into awareness, that we will surprise ourselves and prove to be a species worth saving [too].”
Reminders that we have failed to meet our duty as stewards of the natural world have become all too familiar. And just as “Strange Company’s” clanging eco-alarm becomes as predictable as the rising sun, the narrator’s insights shifts to a more celebratory tone. The narrative becomes envious of the lavish color of a Katydid, impressed by the glorious month-long song of the cicadas, thankful for the charity shown to an injured Mockingbird. There is much worth celebrating.
Then the narrative tone shifts once more, nourishing the reader with food for thought. There is a story about the discovery of the Lascaux Cave paintings in France. Ryan’s narrative wonders; why would a Neolithic man bother to paint the animals of their time but not create portraits of themselves. Was it a tribute for a successful hunt or a catalog of trophies? No one will ever know, but the reader learns the cave paintings with which most people are familiar, are a recreation of the originals. The original caves are just a few miles away from the modern recreations fashioned for tourists. Historians and Artists recreated the paintings because human presence ruined the originals. The paintings were not purposefully vandalized, but the simple act of visiting them, the humidity exuded by the human body, the CO2 in our breath, created a new environment in the old caves that encouraged mold, we could not protect the old paintings from ourselves. We loved them to death.
In the end, “Strange Company” gives the reader a gift, a story of why the natural world is a place of wonder for the narrator. The six-year-old in all of us should find something as precious in our natural world to hold on to, to tether us to it forever.
If you are a reader of Eco-lit, a fan of Ryan, or are in search of a gift for a burgeoning eco-activist, purchase a copy of “Strange Company,” it is well worth the read.
Strange Company by Jean Ryan