Islands offer wonderful settings for stories, real and imagined. They’re enisled, separate, away. They inspire intriguing metaphors. They attract interesting, some might say “quirky,” people. Surrounding waters present lulling beauty and hidden danger. And when things happen on islands, insularity stirs up complex social dynamics and demands local solutions. With islands on three coasts and scattered throughout rivers and lakes, it’s hardly surprising that these compelling literary devices have a powerful presence in Canadian fiction and creative non-fiction.
As a rule of thumb (grounded in observation, rather than any systematic analysis) the size of an island tends to shape the nature of the story. Large islands are settings for tales of distinctive communities, defined at least in part by their distance from urbanity. Lucy Maude Montgomery placed her stories of Anne of Green Gables on Prince Edward Island as it encapsulates a nurturing rural lifestyle preserved in a changing world by its sandy shorelines. As Anne says, “Look at that sea, girls—all silver and shadow and vision of things not seen.”
Not all island stories are so benign. Annie Proulx tells of shame and redemption on the rugged and remote shores of Newfoundland in Shipping News. And as Michael Crummey describes the decline of Newfoundland outports in Sweetland, he explores the compelling legacy of identity and history that ties people to the land. On the Pacific coast, Jack Hodgins richly imagines the lives of working-class characters found in rural communities on Vancouver Island, starting with his first book of short stories, Spit Delaney’s Island and in all his subsequent novels. Large islands have deep histories and complex dynamics, but are still distinctive by virtue of their separation from the mainland.
On smaller islands, individualism tends to set the tone of the story. John Fowles points out that the size of an island is critical to how it is experienced in Islands, his lovely account of life on the Isles of Scilly. He observes that it’s only when you can see the edges wrapping round you that you truly know you’re on an island, you’re of an island.
And the more remote the island, the greater the focus on self-sufficiency, particularly if it is not on a ferry grid. Nature becomes an important element of the story. So does character development. Think of all the many young adult novels set on small islands. They begin with a sense of isolation that slowly gives way to greater self-awareness and innovative problem-solving. Adult novels take a similar track, often with more thoughtful sub-plots. A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki, uses Lasquiti Island as the setting for a multilayered exploration of alternate realities sparked by the discovery of the personal belongings of a young girl from Japan that had made their way across the Pacific. Small remote islands can also be settings for power and control. Brother XII established his spiritual colony on British Columbia’s idyllic DeCourcy and Valdes Islands, as described in Brother XII: The Strange Odyssey of a 20th Century Prophet.
The ways Canadians write about island experiences are rich and varied. Here are a few of my personal favourites, gleaned from several years of reading about these special places while researching my book, Complicated Simplicity: Island Life in the Pacific Northwest.
A great starting point for appreciating the depth and breadth of islands’ appeal is Island: How Islands Transform the World, by retired University of Toronto English professor, J.E. Chamberlin. Writing from BC’s Sunshine Coast where he looks out on islands every day, Chamberlain provides a thoughtful and engaging reflection on the role of islands in western culture. Another exploration of island living is offered by Phillip Vannini in Ferry tales: mobility, place and time on Canada’s west coast. As an ethnographer and islander, Vannini focuses on the many ways in which ferry travel defines the nature of the island experience, drawing on conversations with islanders, many of which took place on ferries. His writing is accessible, funny and insightful.
Island experiences lend themselves to the memoir format as writers look back on their experiences, sometimes with awe that they actually put themselves in such challenging situations. Two notable ones are now only available through second-hand booksellers. A favourite among west coast islanders is Once Upon an Island, by David Connover. While Connover and his wife, Jeanne, had many rewarding experiences settling on lovely Wallace Island in the 1960s, it’s remarkable that they managed to get by with so little experience, money or support. Connover’s stories of learning to operate a boat, for example, will set your hair on end. Another fascinating memoir that probes the gap between intention and reality is Island Sojourn, by Elizabeth Arthur. Her frank descriptions of both the pleasures and tensions inherent in moving to a remote island in a lake in northern British Columbia in the 1970s make for a memorable read.
Poets also find inspiration in island settings. Laurie Brinklow’s wonderful poems in her recently published My island’s the house I sleep in at night, gracefully capture the essence of the many islands that she has explored first as a student and then as a member of the Graduate Faculty of the Master of Arts in Island Studies (MAIS) program at the University of Prince Edward Island.
These are just a few examples of the many Canadian literary works set on islands. Whether I was reading about island living, or talking with the 20 people I interviewed for Complicated Simplicity, compelling stories that are grounded in love of place and self-sufficiency emerge. Islanders are special people with varied experiences, but common characteristics. In my summary chapter, I note that the perfect islander will be “resilient, confident, enthusiastic, tenacious, quick-witted, optimistic, proactive, fit, self-reliant, independent, adaptable, self-disciplined, flexible, and handy. He or she will also bring creativity, ingenuity, a strong environmental ethic, and a get-up-and-go attitude to the island relationship. Good organizational skills, a ready sense of humour, and engaging social skills are also desirable. And some observers rank inventiveness and resourcefulness as most important of all.” With all these characteristics at play, island literature is sure to be rich and engaging.
A frank, practical, and entertaining exploration of the pleasures and complexities of living on small islands.
Many people dream of living simple lives on small islands, but few are aware of some of the unique challenges that accompany this distinctive lifestyle. From negotiating surrounding waters to creating a sustainable home and making a viable life away from urban conveniences, small-island living can be rewarding or difficult (or both), depending on myriad circumstances.
Complicated Simplicity: Island Life in the Pacific Northwest draws on a variety sources to contextualize peoples’ enduring fascination with islands worldwide, including the author’s own experiences growing up on Bath Island (off Gabriola) and her interviews with over twenty intrepid figures who live on the San Juan Islands, the Gulf Islands, the Discovery Islands, and in Clayoquot Sound. Ingenuity, tenacity, and a passion for living in these special places shine through in the personal stories, as does a shared concern for safety, sustainability, and thoughtful stewardship. Engaging, inspiring, and often funny, Complicated Simplicity offers readers honest and useful insights on the joys, perils, and rewards of island life.
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