Themes to Ponder: Family, Altruism and Rebellion

Geoff Wells as a kid

The author dressed for school with a suitcase full of dreams.


A book discussion group essay by Geoffrey Wells.

I love a book that makes me think about it after I have read the last sentence. Pondering the themes under the subtext of the story, especially when the author’s voice throughout has been lucid and effortless, is a gratifying reward after a good read. This often comes with an “aha!” moment when I suddenly know what the book is saying and understand its premise. When that happens, I am driven to write a review for that author because he or she didn’t waste my time—I understoood, I learned, I felt what the protagonist felt. These are the embers that must glow after the last sentence—and what I strive for in the stories I write.

One of my beta readers, after reading The Drowning Bay, said she enjoyed pondering the question of law-breaking for the greater good. She added that she enjoyed pondering “whether altruism at large is more important than those people in your inner circle.”

These paired themes in The Drowning Bay confront Allison, the story’s protagonist. The catalyst of the battle between altruism and rebellion is Sam, the son of the missing environmental activist, Gida. As Allison tries to navigate her own freedom her conscience anticipates Sam’s heartbreak inflicted by his missing mother. Allison can see that Gida is counting on the enduring love and support of her husband and son until such time—and if ever—she saves the bay. However, her expectation of loyalty becomes increasingly unreasonable.

Allison—the outsider, comes into this family unit and exposes Gida’s assumption for what it seems to be—selfishness. She finds out that Gida’s attitude is an uncomfortable mirror of her own self-absorbed obsession with her struggle to redefine herself.

The nagging thing about altruism is its potential for hypocrisy. Is concern for the welfare of others ever truly selfless? After all, doesn’t helping others make you a better person? What Allison grapples with, is how Gida manages to pull off her outrageous act of abandonment without appearing to be self-righteous. However, the more Allison learns—secondhand—about Gida, a remarkably brave woman, the more she starts to see that Gida has sacrificed for a greater good most of her life—so her apparent hypocrisy begins to look saintly.

As I wrote in A Fado for the River (Book One of the trilogy), Gida came from a poor Portuguese family and, upon graduation from college seized an opportunity to better herself in the colony of Mozambique. But when she arrived she realized she’d fallen for a trap set by human traffickers. To escape, she accepted the kindness of a married man only to realize he wanted a lover and eventually forced her to bear his child. But Raf, a footloose student at the time, falls in love with Gida just as the Carnation Revolution spills over into the colony. Raf and Gida are caught between the warring factions of the colonial regime, a military coup and the rebels fighting for self-determination. Gida, knowing what it’s like to be exploited, sympathizes with the locals and rejects her European culture. So, she bravely sacrifices her freedom and becomes a double agent, saving many from the murdering “mercy” missions. When Raf finds her years later, they adopt a boy, to whom she devotes her new American life.

Allison comes to understand that Gida’s life of sacrifice has led her to this point in time: when she must sacrifice again for a greater good.  How could Gida leave her husband and son? Gida, like her followers, believes that global warming will continue until it robs her son of his future. The gravity of her altruism, the agape, the unconditional love she feels for the planet is authentic in the context of her past. Understanding this motivates Allison to break the law herself in order to help the boy find his mother. She reasons that, if the greater good is important enough for Gida to sacrifice her family, then she too might break the law in order to reunite a son with his mother.

The stakes are high for Allison, but it is Gida’s agonizing backstory that gives Allison the credence she needs to risk helping the boy. In Atone for the Ivory Cloud, (Book Two of the trilogy) Allison barely survived the terror at the hands of ivory traffickers. Her bravery was outmatched only by her panic when she siphoned off the stolen bitcoin and it disappeared into the ether. Prison time closed that book in her life. However, any violation of her parole would send her back there.

The Drowning Bay is the manifestation of the themes in the previous two novels. They lend credence to the character conflicts that unfold in the third novel. It is my hope that after reading it the reader ponders the themes, and after not too long will derive the premise, which I hope is what I want to the book to say: that it is tolerance that leads to the greater good—not the other way round.

I hope that the embers of these themes in The Drowning Bay glow for you, as we Americans start to rebuild our environmental protections after the devastation of the last four years: According to research from Harvard Law School, Columbia Law School and other sources, The New York Times counts more than 80 environmental rules and regulations officially reversed, revoked or otherwise rolled back. ( )

In this context, the reconciliation between family, altruism and conscientious rebellion seems like a responsibility—for everyone who cares about our future and our planet.


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