THE OUTER COAST. By Richard Batman. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 384 pp. $18.95.
ANY RIGHT-minded historian knows that history is really the interwoven tales of individual people who, for the most part, were living their lives pretty much the way we all do, as amateurs, making it up as we go along. A good historian knows too that you can tap the richness at any focal point and the stories will be there, waiting.
That is just what Richard Batman has done in The Outer Coast. Starting on the morning of May 14, 1769, and taking the coast of California as his focal point, Batman just spins out the stories of the people who touched there and helped to shape the place over the next hundred years. The stories are wonderful, the personalities endlessly interesting, and every one of them breathes with the real life of humanity.
Father Junipero Serra, founder of California's missions under Spanish rule, was a humorless and quarrelsome troublemaker, yet the description of his death is radiant with his own faith in a merciful God. There is a wonderful story of a Spanish and an English sea captain, meeting in a California port, drinking together too late into the night, suffering from hangovers in the morning, and almost starting a war because each felt his dignity was being slighted. There is another great story about Captain James Cook, his globe-circling explorations, and the bad luck and confusion that led to his death on the beach at Kealakakua Bay in Hawaii. And the stories, each connected in some way to the development of California, just keep coming.
The great strength of Batman's book is that he never fails to keep in mind that his subjects were fallible human beings. Its other great strength is that he knows some terrific stories. TTHE ISLAND OF THE WHITE COW. By Deborah Tall. Atheneum. 224 pp. $14.95.
THERE SEEMS TO be a flourishing subgenre of books by Americans who go to live in primitive, windswept spots in Ireland. The latest is The Island of the White Cow by Deborah Tall. She kids herself that she went because she thought she could write poetry if she were cut off from the world, but the truth is that she was swept off her feet, as a college senior, by the dashing Irish poet resident in her school. She never actually says she fell in love and would have followed him anywhere, but we know, we know.
So off go Deborah and Owen to the primitive, windswept Island of the White Cow, with seven miles of thrashing waves and uncertain boat service separating them from the rocky coast of Connemara in the west of Ireland. And, except for Tall's occasional mooning about her desire to write soulful poetry, her account of five years on the island, compressed to a single year in the narrative, is both fascinating and very touching.
Her island is "a world of heady, leisurely beauty where there are no laws, only courtesies and conventions." The handful of islanders are all on the dole, but they offer as much variety of personality as one could wish for in a society, and Tall is equally expert at both observing them and describing them. My favorite scene is the Tupperware party, when all the women look to her, the expert, to see if they should buy. All in all, this is a warm and loving look at a vanishing way of life, and, to its credit, the book is even sad in a suitably Irish way. MARA SIMBA: The African Lion. By Roger Caras. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 224 pp. $15.95.
I AM NOT fond of animal books, and Roger Caras gave me a few bad moments in his latest, Mara Simba: The African Lion, but he remains one of the best writers on the subject around today.
The bad moments come when he refers to mating lions as "the honeymooning pair," which he does repeatedly, and when he describes a lioness about to bear cubs as "a wild, muscular madonna." Fortunately, Caras otherwise writes so well about lions, as he has about other beasts, that he can be let off with only a reprimand.
It's one thing simply to know, as most of us do, that lions are noble creatures, admirably filling their place in the natural and ecological order of things. It's quite another to enter the lives of the lions that run free on the Serengeti Plain in Tanzania and western Kenya, and to observe them as intimately as Caras makes possible. Simba may not, in reality, be king of the beasts -- only the elephant, Caras wisely observes, dies of old age -- but there is a wonderful and beautiful order to his existence. Caras takes us on a lifelong journey with a "typical" male lion, from his birth, through his youth and training under the watchful care of his mother, his interactions within his pride, and then his inevitable expulsion from the pride and his solitary wanderings. When both skill and opportunity come together, he then takes over another pride, driving out older, weaker males, as he himself will one day be driven off, most likely to die his own lonely death, victim of a stronger foe.
The stages of his life are clearly defined, the battle for survival is constant, the continuation of the species permitted only to the strongest and the cleverest, the survivors. Caras manages to paint a living portrait of the lion, surrounded by all the other animals that color his existence in the wild. Except for that muscular madonna, lions will never look the same to me again. THE WORLDS OF A MAASAI WARRIOR: An Autobiography. By Tepilit Ole Saitoti. Random House. 144 pp. $16.95.
TEPILIT OLE Saitoti, a member of the Maasai tribe of eastern Africa, was responsible for the 1980 Maasai, a book of striking photos and text about his people. Now, at the age of 36, he has undertaken an autobiography. Saitoti grew up expecting -- indeed, imagining -- no life other than the traditional existence of his people, a life of cattle-herding, wandering, mischance, poverty, and ceremony. Then his father sent him to a mission school and another sort of world became possible. He embraced it, and the inevitable tensions with his father and his tribe followed. Ambitious, Saitoti learned both English and Swahili and became a tourist guide, which led to his being chosen as the subject for a National Geographic film called Man of the Serengeti. Thereafter, Saitoti's story becomes the tale of a good-natured but opportunistic young man, stumbling, albeit successfully, from one "sponsor" to another, from one lucky break to another, always quick to abandon one friend when a better one comes along. The early chapters about his life among the Maasai are fine and interesting; too little has been written about these people. There is some engaging innocence too; describing college life in Boston, he writes, "I had always been a responsible and keen herder when I was growing up. The same discipline went into my schoolwork now." But the rest is self-serving and self-indulgent. It's nice for him that he's always had plenty of girlfriends, but it doesn't really interest me.