“Imagine it, Minnie,” he said. “Just imagine it. Our own island–our own country–and nobody to answer to. We could pull up the drawbridges and man the battlements. I could be king. And you–you, Minnie–you could be queen.”
Although I normally steer clear of historical fiction, for T.C. Boyle, I make an exception. I never know what to expect from Boyle, and he always seems to surprise me with his subject choices. One book, The Road to Wellville includes a fictionalized account of John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of Cornflakes. Talk Talk is the story of a young deaf woman, named Dana, whose life is ruined by identity theft. Boyle has also written a number of short stories including one I can’t forget, Jubilation, the tale of a man who decides to buy a home built inside a Florida theme park. Two of T.C Boyle’s frequent themes are man’s search for the Ideal and people who are obsessed with achieving their goals, no matter the cost, and both of those themes are certainly at play in San Miguel.
Boyle discovered the history of the tiny Channel Island, San Miguel which is located off the California coast, when he researched his last novel, When the Killing’s Done. When the Killing’s Done pits animal activists against environmentalists in a war over the future of the Channel Islands with both groups holding a passionate set of beliefs. San Miguel, the author’s fourteenth novel, concerns the history of one of the islands told through the stories of three women who lived there. San Miguel is tangentially connected to Boyle’s previous book–although the questions of environment preservation and endangered species are mostly in the consciousness of the reader but creep in right at the novel’s conclusion.
San Miguel begins on New Year’s Day 1888 with the relocation of Marantha Waters, a wealthy San Francisco woman, her adopted, willful daughter, 14-year-old Edith, Marantha’s second husband of seven years, Captain (a title earned in the Civil War) Will Waters, and Irish servant Ida. Marantha suffers from TB, and according to her husband, who’s talked her into staking this business venture with 10,000 dollars, “the last of her savings,” her health will improve with the fresh, clean “virginal” sea air. They now own a half stake in the Pacific Wool Growing Company partnered with Mills, who moved off the island and now lives on the mainland. The Waters family will live in a “wood-frame sheepman’s place,” which Marantha has romanticized in her imagination–in spite of being warned to the contrary.
What would it be like? The rooms–how were the rooms arranged? And the views? Would Edith have a room of her own–or would she have to share with Ida. And what of the hired man, Adolph Bierson, whose face she hadn’t liked from the minute she laid eyes on him at first light that morning? And Jimmie, the boy who’d been out here looking after things these past months–where did he sleep?
The reality is painful:
It took her a moment to get her bearings, the mule kicking up clods, the boy swinging the sled in a wide arc across the yard so that it was facing back down the canyon even as he reached up for the hame of the animal’s collar and jerked it to a stop. She didn’t know what she’d been expecting, some sort of quaint ivy-covered cottage out of Constable or Turner, hedges, flowerbeds, a picket fence–a sheepman’s place–but this was something else altogether. This couldn’t be it, could it?
Raising 4,000 sheep on San Miguel would be a challenge for the young, healthy and highly motivated, but for Marantha, suffering from TB and deprived of any household comforts (including an inside toilet), life is difficult and she feels “marooned“ and vulnerable. When the sand isn’t blowing, the rain is pouring, and when it isn’t raining, the fog rolls in….
Edith is first seen through Marantha’s eyes, but then in the second section of the novel, she becomes a much more detailed and interesting character–the second woman to be held hostage on an isolated, desolate island, an unwilling pawn in her stepfather’s dreams of “increase, that was his theme. Increase and improvement and profit.”
The history of the second family who make a life for themselves in the 30s on San Miguel are the Lesters, and while the Waters looked to the island to solve their problems of ill-health and failure, the Lesters are a completely different scenario. They escape the deprivations of Depression America and almost avoid WWII entirely through their chosen, blissful and idyllic isolation.
Author T.C. Boyle explores many ideas in this novel–how the dreams of one man become the nightmare of his wife, and how some people thrive on isolation while others are driven nearly mad by it. The island plays a huge role in the story, and while several people throw their lives, their future prosperity, and their fate at the landscape, they die or move on, while the island remains. Dynamite is used in the building of roads that are washed away, and there’s the sense that while the humans alter the environment for their (mostly economic) purposes, the opposite is also taking place. The history of the island certainly extends farther than its inhabitants can imagine, and the moment when Captain Waters discovers the Indian graveyard speaks volumes for the temporal moments of man versus the timelessness of the Earth.
The smell of the sea seemed to concentrate itself suddenly, the fermenting odor of all the uncountable things washed up out of the waves coming to her as powerfully as if she were standing down there amongst them. And then a gust rose up out of the canyon, knifing through her, and in the instant she turned to retreat into the house she saw it fan the dead bird’s wings till they rasped and fluttered and strove to take flight one last time.
This is a quintessential American novel with its exploration of character against the landscape, Manifest Destiny, Individualism, the quest for Utopia through isolation, and the dream of self-reliance and freedom through rugged survival. At the heart of the novel, Boyle questions our custodial responsibilities on the planet. We see how our brief lives leave traces in the landscape, and how our thoughtless decisions impact the environment. Marantha’s San Miguel of 1888, for example, is devoid of cats and run over with mice, but by the time the Lesters arrive in the 30s, the place is overrun with hundreds of cats, and we see how humans unsettle the delicate balance of nature. The novel ends on a complex and uneasy note; those who live on San Miguel lose precedence over conservation. Throughout the course of the story, wince-worthy incidents such as the slaughter of an eagle, the capture of seals for the circus, and the gleeful looting of Indian graves evoke a response that at least some societies have progressed enough to recognise the basic wrong in such casually destructive acts. Yet with T.C. Boyle, it’s not that simple, and the novel’s conclusion brings the sense that we still haven’t got it right, and perhaps we never will.