To borrow a well-used old phrase and write that Edward O. Wilson, Pellegrino University Research Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, “wrote the book” on ants is neither to exaggerate nor employ a metaphor; it was written in scholastic partnership with his long-time scientific collaborator Bert Hölldobler, titled The Ants, and published in 1990. In 1991 it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize (the second so awarded to a work written by Dr. Wilson). Three more of the dozen additional books he would write in the twenty years that followed also featured ants as their subject. Therefore it likely came as a surprise to no one familiar with either Dr. Wilson or his scientific accomplishments that his first novel, published in his eightieth year, would be titled Anthill and feature elements from the natural history of these remarkable creatures in its plotline. However rather than the wooden, fact-laden prose that might be commonly expected from a world-renowned scientist turning a late-in-life hand toward fiction, Anthill is an entertaining as well as compelling story told in an intelligent yet unaffected style that lovers of fiction and natural history enthusiasts alike will find appealing.
Were any other writer to attempt to weave together the natural history of the ant colonies inhabiting a south Alabama longleaf pine forest, a bildungsroman featuring a bright young boy growing up in a small and somewhat “unreconstructed” southern town, a novel within a novel, and a modern power struggle between real estate developers, conservationists, and religious Dominionists (those who believe the preservation of nature is against the will of God as their interpretation of the Bible tells them that the Earth was created for man’s use above all else), the result would have most certainly been unfortunate at best. However Dr. Wilson, drawing upon his extraordinary breadth of scientific knowledge, his insightful and nuanced philosophical imagination, and his superb skill as a story-teller not only manages to weave all these seemingly disparate narrative threads together into a coherent whole, he does so in a way that draws the reader deeply into the interlaced worlds he creates as few other modern novelists can be said to do.
Narrated by an aging professor from Florida State University, Anthill unfolds the story of the youth and education of Raphael (Raff) Semmes Cody, the son of a blue-collar father and a mother from a prominent “old South” family. Raff’s tale of growing up trying to balance the conflicting influences of his family’s disparate lineages would make for a compelling novel all on its own; however it is the tripartite presentation of the lives of ants, men, and the larger world around both these groups that really makes Anthill the remarkable work that it is. In developing Raff’s childhood around his curiosity and investigations of the tract of woodland not far from his Clayville, Alabama home, Dr. Wilson is able to interweave extended and meaningful passages depicting the lives of the ants and other creatures that Raff discovers during his boyhood rambles and then uses the information provided in these same passages to illuminate the motivations and actions of the people in his story as well.
There is an old Latin proverb that proclaims natura in minima maxima, which translates as “nature is the greatest in the smallest things.” It is a message Dr. Wilson conveys with particular effectiveness in the novel within the novel entitled “The Anthill Chronicles.” Presented as the essential narrative of events upon which Raff’s undergraduate honors thesis was written, this embedded novel employs a technique that reaches back as far as Shakespeare’s plays to present a much smaller story in a far grander style; the effect of which is not only brings the reader face to face with what Raff has observed, understands, and which underpins his life-directing passion for the preservation of nature in its remaining wild places, but also illuminates the essential dynamics and universal realities of power as exercised by one group over another.
It is greatly to be hoped that Dr. Wilson’s Anthill will be read by those of the widest possible scope of opinion on matters of land use, conservation, species preservation, and mankind’s relationship to the world as a whole. The arguments he presents in the telling of the story are never simplistic; even the Dominionists, as non-rational and often self-contradictory as their professed ideas may be, are portrayed as acting from a deeply and honestly-held set of beliefs that propel them, along with all the other characters, toward the story’s unexpected and thrilling climax. Make no mistake – Anthill is not an ecological sermon couched as a novel. It is first and foremost a compelling tale enjoyable by all who appreciate a well-told story. However for those who seek something more than simple entertainment from the works of fiction they read, who appreciate a well-argued philosophical point, keen social observation, or an informative natural history reflection, something very much to their liking will be discovered in Anthill as well.
Author: Edward O. Wilson
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Co.
Format: hardcover, 378 pages
In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was provided gratis to the reviewer by the publisher.