George Fairbairn, Turtle Master

I have recently taken a shine to a character in Russell Hoban’s old (1975) novel, Turtle Diary. George Fairbairn is the keeper of the turtles at the Aquarium in London and potentially the antagonist of Naeara H and William G, who want to steal the turtles and set them free in the ocean. He is not an antagonist at all, it turns out, and helps them in every way he can.

Then, when they come back, he helps them a good deal more. George is comfortable with his life and with the person he is. “I don’t mind being alive,” is the way he expresses it and both Naeara and William refer to that expression, neither one capturing it quite the way George has.

His relationship with Naeara becomes romantic in time, but it is the revitalization of both of them that most caught my eye this time around. William, for instance, lives in a boarding house where one of the other residents, an East European who is considerably larger than William, keeps on fouling up the common kitchen area. William tries to launch a new life based on his successful theft of the turtles, but it doesn’t seem to change anything and eventually he gets into a fight with the East European.

He is lamenting his fate to George Fairbairn and in what seems like a moment of honesty—-not easy for William to come by—he says, “You can’t do it with turtles.” Having solved the challenges of that one project doesn’t solve even the most fundamental challenges of daily life. “Launching the turtles,” he says, “didn’t launch me. “

George’s response is, “You can’t do it with turtles, but with people, you never know straightaway what does what. Maybe launching them did launch you but you don’t know it yet.” I liked that. William is in a bleak and existential mood. George is saying very sensibly that although you always know right away whether the turtles are launched, you can’t be so sure about humans. About a given project, we must say maybe it did and maybe it didn’t. And we must keep paying attention.

Naeara went to the Zoo to see him afterwards to see if he had heard anything about the turtles. Sitting there on the duckboard behind the fish tanks, Naeara began to cry. “Don’t hold back,” said the keeper, “These are saltwater tanks.” That’s the first thing I really liked about George.

We learn nothing else about the developing relationship, if there was one, but Naeara wakes up the next morning in George’ apartment. “He had a clean look and a clean feel about him,” is Naeara’s early assessment, “nothing muddy. There was about him the smell or maybe just the idea of dry grass, warm in the sun.”

Several days later, Naeara looked around her apartment and assessed it this way. “I didn’t know how lonely I’d been until my loneliness stopped. Now when I looked at my flat, it seemed to have been criss-crossed in patterns of pain that had been there for years.”

She sees that as the effect George has had on her and you have to admit, it is a powerful effect. I wish her well.

It’s almost impossible not to like George Fairbairn, once yon notice him. It has taken me about forty years, but I really like him now. And I admire people who can have the kind of effect of people that George had on William and Naeara.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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