- by Carol Standish
Island Books Are the Best Escape
Summer reading should be pure escape. All types of books can help you accomplish this escape but books with remote island settings can transport you about as far from your real life as you can get without hurting yourself. Here are a few titles for your summer pleasure.
Anita Shreve has accomplished a remarkable feat in her recent novel, The Weight of Water (Little, Brown and Company;246pp; $13.95). She has woven a fictional confession to a double murder into an account of a modern troubled marriage. The murders actually happened in 1873 on Smuttynose Island, one of the most barren and desolate of the Isles of Shoals. Jean, the contemporary protagonist, discovers the confession at the Portsmouth "Atheneum" while on a photographic assignment at the Isles.
She sails to the Isles with her husband and daughter on a lovely sailboat owned and captained by the her brother-in-law. He brings a young, curvaceous and exotic girlfriend and thereby hangs at least part of the tale. The female author of the confession writes the document in her old age in search of absolution. Jean recalls her visit to the Shoals in a state of shock and grief also seeking relief from blame. Jealousy is at the root of it all.
"I have to let this story go. It is with me all the time now, a terrible weight." The suspense in the parallel stories of two tormented women builds from these first tantalizing lines and if it weren't for Shreve's evocative prose, the reader would be tempted to race to the end as if Weight of Water were simply a great whodunit.
Shreve's way with words is reason alone to read the book. She is particularly sensitive to sound and cadence. The reader is indeed transported by her language into the weather and water at the Isles of Shoals and into the murky minds of the Norwegian murderess and the modern wife and mother.
The Island Queen, by Julia Older (Appledore Books; 185pp; $11.00) is also set on the Isles of Shoals. Older has produced a fictional biography of Celia Thaxter, who gathered a salon of American artists and writers to her father's hotel on Appledore late in the last century. The book is a breezy read based loosely on the facts of Thaxter's life. The famous Smuttynose murder, central to Shreve's novel, figures highly in Older's book as well. Thaxter was on the island at the time of the murder and wrote a version of the event which was published in the Atlantic in May of 1875.
In her day, however, Thaxter was better known for her poetry than prose. Encouraged to write by John Greenleaf Whittier, a guest at the hotel, she produced a respectable body of verse in spite of a hectic and strenuous life of caring for a demanding, semi-invalid husband, three sons, one of whom was emotionally unstable and her aging parents, not to mention helping in the family business, the island hotel. Perhaps her best know poem today is, The Sandpiper, which some of us learned in grade school ...Across the narrow beach we flit/one little sandpiper and I… Older romanticizes Thaxter's relationship with Whittier but she describes the conventions and the atmosphere of the late Victorian period with convincing authority. Modern women probably wouldn't want to go there.
Older has also compiled a book of Thaxter's selected writings which includes letters, poems, a short history of the Shoals, the murder account and an extensive bibliography. Celia Thaxter Selected Writings (Appledore Books; 312pp; $14.50) also includes an excerpt from An Island Garden, a 126 page highly knowledgeable treatise on the fabulous flower garden which she grew year after year on a rock in the middle of the sea.
In recent years, the Rye, New Hampshire Garden Club has re-established Thaxter's gardens but permission to see them must be obtained from Cornell University. Isles of Shoals Steamship Company can tell you more.
No discussion of books with island settings would be complete without including a title by Elisabeth Ogilvie. In her 80s, Ogilvie has just published her 42nd book, The Day Before Winter (Down East Books; 284pp; $23.95) a long-awaited sequel to her earlier "Bennett's Island" novels, know collectively as the Tide Trilogy. The tightly knit island community is challenged to accept two strangers, albeit relatives, who settle on the island for secret reasons.
Nan Harmon is too bitter to speak to anyone, literally, until she spills her sad tale to the island matriarch, Joanna Sorenson. Hal Bennett, a twenty-something from the California branch of the family is so utterly charming in his enthusiasm for the island and its denizens that no one ever dreams that he is far from what he seems until he disappears one dark night. Other extended family tensions involve Owen who has a potentially fatal heart condition and his wife, Laurie, who desperately wants him to give up winter fishing in favor of world travel. The array of island pets are also an integral part of the scene.
There are comical moments when applications for island school teacher are reviewed, tense moments between parents and adult children, sad moments when Harmon's brave children are abused by their peers and moments of mystery when personal secrets hang fire. Basically, The Day Before Winter is about the day to day affairs of decent hard-working people—no murders, no mayhem, no sex, and very little scandal.
Like Shreve, however, Ogilvie can be read for her prose alone. Her eye for detail is almost overwhelming and her descriptions of the beloved island can bring tears to the eyes of anyone who loves Maine.
"She followed the trail out to the open slopes of Sou'west Point, the fields where the wild strawberries ripened in the tall grass, and roses grew down to the edge of the tide. Through the surf and wind they bloomed so constantly that in the most dense fog the scent of unseen roses met and surrounded approaching boats."
Who wouldn't trade that scene for the office cubicle (or suite) any summer day?