Durham Book Group: The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District by James Rebanks

Our reading choice for the last book group meeting of 2016 was James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life and as a group, we were divided in our liking for and appreciation of this best-selling book.

Rebanks has given us a flavour of his life and experiences as a hill shepherd, a difficult and challenging way to make a living which he acknowledges is best supplemented by additional work to boost fluctuating income. He tells us about the family that shaped him and the people he lives near and does business with, the men and women in and around the Matterdale valley in Cumbria.

After descriptions of his shaky experience at school and a system that failed him, the group felt that this hadn’t held the author back, as he’s fortunate to be blessed with a quick and lively intelligence, a talent for writing and an enterprising and proactive spirit that affords him opportunities to pursue and exploit. He has a warm, generous and loving family around him and a father whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the landscape Rebanks tells us, makes a nonsense of conventional ideas of intelligence.

Rebanks writes with an evocative and poetic style, exploring the physical life of a sheep farmer, inextricably bound with meaning of the Cumbrian landscape and detailing a life where “landscapes like ours are the sum total and culmination of a million little unseen jobs.” His use of words is delicious and evocative of both the harshness of farming life through the seasons and the beauty of the landscape. Many of us felt Rebanks is trying to get a range of points across, in particular, the value of those who farm in maintaining the fabric and culture of the landscape. He points us to other countries where the lack of farmers in more remote areas creates a dearth in maintaining the cultural element of the landscape.

Rebanks observes the landscape and puts his observations into exquisite language –

“Little things you see make it special. Skeins of geese pass over, high in the frosty blue. Ravens tumble over each other down the wind, like a black ribbon descending from the fell. Foxes skulk across the frost­ed fields at first light. Hares watch you with big dark watery eyes” and “the heron folds down the wind heading downstream.”

Descriptions of sheep are personal and wonderful and he explains the knowledge and understanding that goes into breading and improving a flock born out of hard work and skill. He tells us “sheep are cultural objects, almost like art” and we can see exactly what he means.

We were divided in our feelings about the format of the narrative. Some readers felt that the story flowed like the seasons, with the author touching on particular stories at varying points and matching those seasons, where past present and future are always the same, running and flowing into each other. Others were bothered by this and felt that the narrative was random and disjointed, with some commenting that Rebanks touches upon subjects but doesn’t expand on them, one reader stating that she felt the structure could have been improved in order for the depth of Rebanks’ arguments to come out.

One reader felt that in the opening pages, the author seems to be against the very people who are reading his book but as he develops his story, he engages the reader in a positive way. Others were divided in their opinion about how political Rebanks is being in his narrative, some feeling that he makes points but won’t be drawn on them as was their experience when they heard him speak about the book during his appearance at Durham Book Festival.

The discussion concluded with a reader describing the book as “a lovely bowl of broth, warm and hearty, where you get a different bit in your mouth with every spoonful and you never quite know what you’re going to get next.” Perfect.