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Check It Out

Courier Articles by Sandy Schultheis
Sunday, April 8, 2001

Island-Based Books Surrounded on All Sides by Fun

Since the publication of Defoe's classic Robinson Crusoe islands have loomed large in the human imagination as places of escape and enlightenment. I was once adventurous enough to spend a winter on the Big Island of Hawaii, but found the reality of island life did not match my fantasies. I felt adrift geographically in an enormous ocean, as well as caught in a time warp of tropical days did not become longer as spring approached. The pleasures of foraging for fruit and bathing in streams of sun-warmed water were offset by weeks of torrential rain. The nearest public library was an hour's drive across the mountains, and reading by kerosene lamplight was not romantic. After four months I fled back to the mainland. Recently I have come across a three enjoyable books that either take place on islands or are about islands. All are available through your public library, an island of pleasurable reading in a hectic world.

Paradise Park by Allegra Goodman (Dial, 2001).

Sharon Spiegelman is a rebellious young woman who flunks out of college, leaves her unhappy family in Boston, and heads west with her boyfriend. After a brief stay in California the pair moves on to Hawaii, but Sharon soon becomes boyfriendless. Thus begins a twenty-year search for happiness with a succession of lovers, jobs, and religious groups. Through born-again Christianity, Buddhist meditation, and Hassidic Judaism, Sharon keeps trying to find the elusive answers to life's big questions. Even though she is flaky and exasperating Sharon is character so endearing in her candor and enthusiasm that the reader is drawn along through this sometimes rambling story. Goodman who is Jewish, was raised in Hawaii and now lives in Boston. Her down-to-earth depiction of a young woman's quest is so well drawn that one is led to wonder how much of Sharon's story is autobiographical. If you enjoyed Goodman's earlier novel "Kaaterskill Falls" you will want to try this very different but equally enjoyable second effort by a very talented writer.

Island: The Complete Stories by Alistair MacLeod (Norton, 2001).

A few months back I read and loved this author's first novel No Great Mischief which was set mainly on the island of Cape Breton off Nova Scotia. MacLeod is a writer's writer, widely recognized in the literary world but just now being appreciated by a wider readership. His themes center around the migration away from rural places to the cities. Immigrants from the Scottish Highlands in the 18th century found the wild and lonely coasts of the New World reminded them of home. The descendents of these Scots want to escape the hard work of fishing and logging and find a more comfortable life in big cities. But like the author himself, when they become middle aged and successful they long to return to the islands of their youth and re-connect with the power of the elements and the culture their Gaelic-speaking ancestors. MacLeod, who once taught at Indiana University, is now a professor of English at the University of Windsor, Ontario. He spends his summers in Cape Breton.

Searching for Crusoe by Thurston Clarke (Ballantine, 2001).

Subtitled A Journey Among the Last Real Islands, this book explores a number of islands which are remote enough to have escaped the cultural and physical ravages of development and tourism. The opening chapter gives an account of the author's visit to Mas a Tierra (renamed Isla Crusoe by Chile) where a Scottish seaman, Alexander Selkirk, was cast away between 1704 and 1709. Selkirk's story was the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. Thurston goes on to the Spice Islands, the Maldives (which are threatened by global warming) and more rugged and inhospitable places such as Jura in the Hebrides where George Orwell wrote 1984. While writing an interesting book about travel to exotic places, the author also explores the idea of islands in literature and the collective imagination. The link with Robinson Crusoe is important because in earlier times islands were seen as forbidding places best avoided by civilized people. "Crusoe" was the inspiration for numerous later works such as "Treasure Island", and "Swiss Family Robinson", and for our ongoing fascination with the promise of pleasure and a utopian existence that islands promise. Here is a book that will take you on a thought-provoking as well as entertaining trip around the world.

Sandy Schultheis is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.