Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

NBCC Featured Review: Donna Seaman on Anthill, by E.O. Wilson

By Eric Banks

Critical Mass regularly highlights reviews by NBCC members. Here, in a review originally published in the Chicago Tribune, Donna Seaman discusses Edward O. wilson's foray into fiction, Anthill (Norton).

Imagine what it would be like to read Anthill without knowing that the author, Edward O. Wilson, is an eminent, innovative, often controversial Harvard biologist who has written more than 20 groundbreaking nonfiction books and won two Pulitzer Prizes. As though we didn't know that Wilson has raised awareness about biodiversity and why it matters, coined the term biophilia to describe our intrinsic connection to and love for animals and other organisms, and profoundly altered our understanding of social behavior. Let's pretend that we're unaware of the fact that this influential scientist and advocate for the living world has drawn on his own Alabama childhood and enthrallment to nature (read his memoir, Naturalist), as well as his revolutionary study of the ant kingdom, to write his first novel at age 80. Let us set all that aside to see if the novel stands on its own merits.

The Prologue alerts us to the fact that this is no ordinary coming-of-age tale. Instead, this novel about a boy growing up in Alabama encompasses “three parallel worlds,” that of ants, humans, and the biosphere, or “the totality of all life.” The story proper gets off to a Huck Finn-like start as Junior persuades his far more cautious younger cousin Raff, full name Raphael Semmes Cody, to sneak away on a perilous journey in search of the Chicobee Serpent, a legendary river monster. As the boys embark on their secret quest, the author introduces us to a green and fecund place he calls Nokobee County, describing with remarkable precision its colorful species of turtles, snakes, birds, trees, and plants. This teeming realm is also home to a guardian ogre, a towering, shotgun-toting backwoodsman named Frogman, who sets in motion undercurrents of conflict, endangerment, and violence.

Enter Frederick Norville, Frogman's opposite, a professor of ecology at Florida State University. He meets the Codys at pristine Lake Nokobee, where he's studying the surrounding old-growth longleaf pine savanna, a mere remnant of a once immense forest. Fred, who as narrator provides historical background, recognizes young Raff's preternatural attunement to nature, and his need for the solace Nokobee provides. Raff is the only child of a redneck father and a blueblood mother who are always at odds. Ainesley, a gun-loving, hard-drinking, and rascally big talker, tries to inculcate Raff with the manly-man macho code of the South, while Marcia colludes with her wealthy and powerful family who claim him as their heir apparent. All Raff wants to do is learns as much as he can about his sanctuary.

The budding naturalist finds structure and legitimacy for his passion in the Boy Scouts, and nothing dissuades him from his devotion to nature, neither his disparaging family nor a potentially fatal skirmish with a startled cottonmouth moccasin. Instead his appreciation for wildness deepens, and once he realizes how vulnerable Nokobee is to encroaching real estate development, Raff begins daydreaming about becoming “a hero of the environment.”

An intensely disciplined student at Florida State, Raff launches the first in-depth study of the mound-building ants of Nokobee's Dead Owl Cove. Raff's entomology professor assures him that ants are worth the effort. “Keep in mind that ants not only rule the insect world, but societies like the ones at Nokobee are the most complicated on earth next to humans.” Raff shares his findings in the tour de force at the heart of the novel, a startling saga of ant life titled “The Anthill Chronicles.”

The gig is up. No question, this is a fresh, provocative, and transporting novel, an exceptional performance for a debut fiction writer. But it is obvious early on that this author knows the natural world inside and out, a biologist who writes not only with exactitude and authority but also with grace and conviction. And only Wilson, the world's foremost authority on ants, could have written this ant's-eye-view of epic battles between two competing ant colonies. His descriptions of antdom are not only expert but also Homeric and profoundly empathic, resulting in the most imaginative yet scientifically authentic rendering of insect life ever written. And the more Wilson reveals about the complex and demanding lives of ants and the dynamics of their finely calibrated societies — especially the formation of the Supercolony, an empire too large to survive — the more sharply we perceive arresting and instructive similarities between ants and humans.

Guided by his observations of the impact individual self-sacrificing ants have on their society, Raff decides to sacrifice his love for field work to fight for the preservation of Lake Nokobee. He earns a law degree at Harvard, then attempts to work within the system to meet the needs of both humans and the rest of nature by preventing reckless development and habitat destruction. Almost impossibly reasonable, altruistic, and polite, Raff tries to avoid heated confrontations, but Wilson, ever the realist, ratchets up the suspense, creates vicious adversaries, and orchestrates an explosive showdown.

Wilson's foray into fiction allows him to write more expressively, psychologically, even spiritually about the great web of life, humankind included, and the irrefutable rules for ecological survival. Fiction grants him the freedom to imagine an inspiring hero who finds a way forward through the labyrinth of environmental conundrums. Drawing on the great classics of Southern literature, Wilson hopes to emulate what Harper Lee did for civil rights in To Kill a Mockingbird by dramatizing the urgent need for justice on the environmental front. A teacher as well as a scientist, Wilson uses the prism of fiction to cast new light on the grand unifying lesson of nature: all of us earthlings, all of life's astonishing creations, thrive or fail together.

Donna Seaman is an associate editor for Booklist, creator of the fiction anthology In Our Nature: Stories of Wildness, and book critic for Chicago Public Radio. Her author interviews are collected in Writers on the Air.