I read When the Killing’s Done in nine days. It was awesome. This is one of my boss’s books that I’ve had for over a year. In this current phase of my life, not only do I hoard my own books, I also hoard those belonging to my boss. I have been looking forward to reading this book since she lent it to me, but, well, you know. It’s a story of the Channel Islands, off the coast of Santa Barbara, and a group of people who love them, though for different reasons, and they show their love in different ways. Alma Boyd Takesue is an ecologist who works at the National Park Service, and has been tasked with removing invasive species from the Channel Islands in an attempt to undo the damage done to the native flora and fauna by that most invasive species of all, human beings. Dave LaJoy is a small business owner (home stereo systems), vegan, and animal rights activist. He is the founder and leader of the FPA, For the Protection of Animals. He is opposed to the killing of any animal, even if it is for a good reason, for example returning the Channel Islands to its natural state. Alma and Dave are the major characters, though there are others, each with his/her own connections to the Islands. The jacket blurb says that Alma and Dave interact in a series of episodes of escalating violence, and that’s definitely true. The lengths that Dave goes to to usurp the Park Service’s projects on the Channel Islands vary from the absurd to the downright wacko, but more on that later.
What I liked most about this book is the series of leaps into the past that Boyle takes, which serve to elucidate the major characters’ relationship with the Islands. Alma’s grandmother is shipwrecked and lands on Anacampa, the smallest of the Channel Islands. Alma’s father dies in a diving accident off the coast of the Islands when Alma is very young. Dave’s girlfriend Anise lives on Santa Cruz Island as a kid when her mother is a cook on a sheep ranch. We also go back further than that to get some information on the Channel Islands. I didn’t know anything about the Channel Islands before reading this book, and I’m glad to have learned about them. They sound lovely.
The first place the ecologists work on is Anacampa, which is overrun with rats. No one is quite sure how the rats got there, though the assumption is that they swam from various ships that wrecked off the coast of the Islands (the Channel Islands are very close to two major shipping lanes off the coast of California) over the years. The method they employ to exterminate the rats is interesting to me: they dump rat bait, brodifacoum, a next-next generation anticoagulant rodenticide, on the island. I’m not sure how they went about keeping native mammals away from it (rodenticides are equal opportunity mammal-killers), but I decided to suspend disbelief for this plot hole. Dave LaJoy tries to spread Vitamin K tablets around the island to save the lives of the rats. He gets caught and arrested and his plan fails. After a couple of years all the rats are gone, and the Park Service moves on to exterminating the wild boars on Santa Cruz. For this project the Park Service goes a bit more old school: they hire game hunters from New Zealand to fence off the island into smaller areas, and they do through each section and, well, kill the pigs. I’m not sure that this would have gone down in reality the same way—in the book the powers that be decide to leave the boars to rot on the island. This seems wasteful to me: surely someone could have used that meat for something? Dave LaJoy gets onto the island with a reporter and several volunteers from FPA to get photo documentation of the slaughter, but he does it during a terrible rainstorm and one of the volunteers, a student at Santa Barbara Junior College, ends up dying—she falls off a cliff and then gets swept away and drowns. It was actually pretty terrible to read.
At this point one would think that LaJoy would give up on his dream to “save” the Channel Islands, but no, unfortunately he isn’t done yet. At one point during the story, two rogue raccoons lay waste to Dave’s beautiful new lawn. So he traps them. AND TAKES THEM OUT TO SANTA CRUZ ISLAND AND RELEASES THEM. And then he gets the idea to start leaving all kinds of stuff out on the islands. So one foggy morning, after the death of the FPA girl, he, Anise, Wilson, and his girlfriend, he takes his boat for a ride. With about thirty rattlesnakes. In bags. TO RELEASE ON SANTA CRUZ ISLAND. And a pair of cottontail rabbits. TO RELEASE ON SANTA CRUZ ISLAND. And you know what happens to this vegan crime syndicate? Their little boat gets run over by a huge Japanese freighter. How’s that for karma?
In the meantime, poor Alma Boyd Takesue gets impregnated by her boyfriend of five years, Tim, also an ecologist working for the National Park Service, who then leaves her. But work is going well for her other than the constant barrage of car vandalism and protesting at the hands of Dave LaJoy. I liked Alma a lot. I respect her for her professional and personal life decisions. She knows that killing the rats and the boars is not ideal, but it’s a means to an end, and saving the Channel Islands from ruination by invasive species is ultimately more important than a bunch of non-endangered rats and boars, who weren’t supposed to be there in the first place. Alma comes from a long line of strong women. We get to meet her Grandmother, Beverly, who survives a shipwreck and lives alone on Anacampa for over two weeks until the Coast Guard finally rescues her. She raises her daughter Kat alone, and raises her to be independent-minded enough to marry a Japanese man. After reading Kat’s chapter in the novel it shocks me that Alma thinks so poorly of her mother. Her mother was a seventies heroine. So okay, that’s something about Alma that I didn’t like, though generally I did like her very much. She is fairly self-absorbed and not appreciative of her mother when she comes to visit. Now I know not everyone has quite the level of hero-worship that I have for my mother (I was well-trained from a young age to believe everything she says), but come on. A little respect, maybe? Don’t get so wrapped up in your important life that you forget where you came from and who helped you get to where you are now.
Now, Dave LaJoy. What a piece of work he is. Obviously his antics have been well-documented throughout this post, but what I’ve failed to mention thus far is that he’s an asshole. There is no better word for him than that one. One would think that a vegan founder of an animal-rights group would be kind of a nice person, wouldn’t one? Not this one. He’s rude to waiters, his employees, and has no family to speak of. He does have rescue greyhounds off the track which is nice, but not nice enough. Oh yeah, he isn’t very nice to his girlfriend, either. Or other vegan animal rights activists. He is so single minded in his purpose that he thinks it gives him the right to be unpleasant to everyone he meets. And I hate people like that.
Dave’s girlfriend Anise is infinitely more interesting to me than Dave, as is her mother, Rita. Rita moves herself and Anise out to Santa Cruz Island for a job and finds a home. She signs on as a cook at a sheep ranch out there out of desperation—her relationship with Anise’s dad has hit the skids and she needs to support her daughter. She moves out there and hooks up with Bax, the foreman of the ranch. She learns to love lamb and learns how to cook it well, and she learns to love those stinky sheep. Perhaps the most shocking and violent part of the book for me (and remember this is a book that has people drowning, shipwrecks, and mass murder of boars and rats) takes place during this “flashback.” It is lambing time, and Rita and Anise are keeping watch over the herd to keep the ravens from attacking the newborn lambs. A Jeep filled with hunters (long story—the owner of the sheep ranch decided that in order to make more money he would allow hunting on the island; the hunters were supposed to stay away, but they didn’t) disrupts the ewes, they scatter, and the ravens descend and start slaughtering the lambs. Any wonder Anise is a vegan?
I feel like Boyle walks a fine line in When the Killing’s Done between eco-thriller and love song to the Channel Islands. I am not making light of what he accomplishes here, not at all. I quite enjoyed this book. It flows well, much like the ocean that surrounds the Channel Islands, forward and back in time. The modern story line would have been enough to make a best-selling “eco-thriller,” but Boyle goes a step beyond the easy money here. He creates well-drawn characters—not LaJoy, he is more of a jerky caricature—but the women of the story are all very three-dimensional, interesting ladies who I would love to read more about. I hope Boyle takes us back to the Channel Islands again, and allows us to spend some more time with Rita, Anise, Alma, Kat, and Beverly.