From Sea to Shining Sea

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Within five weeks I went from an island in the Pacific Ocean to an island in the Atlantic Ocean! First my husband and I celebrated our 40th anniversary with a trip to Victoria, British Columbia.

Back in the spring, our next-door neighbors invited us over for supper. While talking, we realized that both couples got married in 1978. Our friend grinned, declared he was taking his wife to Italy for their 40th, and pressed his point: how were we planning to celebrate ours? Well, my lovely husband stalled, we were thinking about Canada. It was all I could do not to swivel and stare. Oh, Canada! Yessss!

It turned out we arrived on Canada Day. Thousands of folk in the streets. A giant block party. Vendors, musicians, artists, mimes, bands, orators, food, dancing, throngs. A sea of people ebbed and flowed. We enjoyed the celebration, Butchart Gardens, museums, monuments, and cathedrals. And just being together in a romantic place.

Monhegan Harbor
In August, my sister Dorothy and I traveled to Maine to visit our brother and sister (in-law). We were eager to visit Jim and Kathie’s favorite spot, an island ten miles off the coast. Monhegan. We enjoyed the quiet punctuated by seagulls’ laughter; gardens, galleries, a museum, shops, and the little community church. And just sharing sibling time in a transcendent space.

Sea to shining sea. That reminds me of what my brother Dan says about pitching congregational songs too high to sing. C to shining C!

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Call the Nurse

Combine James Herriot, John McPhee, Seamus Heaney’s poem Digging with a dash of Call the Midwife. Mary J. Macleod moved her family from southern England to become a district nurse on an island twenty miles long in the Inner Hebrides. She, along with a 70-year-old doctor, provided medical care for all the inhabitants in the 1970’s. She writes with a clear-eyed, unsentimental, but affectionate voice.

The book is a series of vignettes: like a gurgling stream it ambles along, making it an satisfying read in pockets of time. Macleod worked (tending elderly, administering daily injections, attending to medical emergencies) with her patients in their homes. She was called at all hours and had to traverse a mountain or be taken by sea in a boat. She cared for people from newborns to octogenarians, many who spoke only Gaelic.

This book taps into three fascinations: island culture, self-sustaining lifestyle, and Scotland. I have been on two islands in Scotland, which is knowledge enough to be dangerously ignorant. To protect the privacy of the inhabitants, Macleod calls her island Papavray. This fired my curiosity, sending me to Google to unsuccessfully tease out the island’s true name.

The best thing? The author wrote her first book (of three now published) in her 80’s. It fuels my hope. Check out her Facebook page.

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Photo taken from Iona, a small — but important — island on the western coast of Scotland.

The second best thing? This book is $.99 on Kindle today.

The Blue Castle

DSC_7838My first response to The Blue Castle was to draw back from the despair. Lucy Maud! How can you? Because, you see, Anne, the Green Gables girl, had a tough beginning in life and Emily, the New Moon girl, was hurt by horrible aunts and uncles; *but* both Anne and Emily knew she was cherished by her late mother and father.

Valancy Stirling has a mother—alive and kicking—who is overbearing, suffocating, domineering, disrespectful, and mean. We meet Valancy on her 29th birthday, shamed and teased because she hasn’t married. Life has no flavor, living is a grim prospect.

All her life she had been afraid of something…
Afraid of her mother’s sulky fits—
afraid of offending Uncle Benjamin—
afraid of becoming a target for Aunt Wellington’s contempt—
afraid of Aunt Isabel’s biting comments—
afraid of Uncle James’ disapproval—
afraid of offending the whole clan’s opinions and prejudices—
afraid of not keeping up appearances—
afraid to say what she really thought of anything—
afraid of poverty in her old age.

Valancy escapes her horrid little life by fantasizing about living in a Blue Castle in Spain, where beauty adorns her, women admire her and men adore her.

Valance becomes aware of a piece of information, a secret from the family; she throws off her bondage and inhibitions and forthwith says and does what she desires. Her family is shocked—shocked!—and thinks Valancy might suffer from mental illness.

BlueCastleThe plot takes some twists and turns, and Valancy ends up living her life of paradise on an island on a lake. L.M. Montgomery includes her hallmark descriptions of the seasons.

They went for long tramps through the exquisite reticence of winter woods and the silver jungles of frosted trees, and found loveliness everywhere.

I am torn by this book. I can’t help but holler hallelujah! when she leaves her loveless family. Happy Independence Day! The happiness she finds is, however, very private, very insular. I doubt that life can be so fulfilling when lived without community. I’m not a fan of what Valancy says about living life to please herself…whoo, boy, that’s a recipe for misery. But I love the compassion she shows to a single mother shunned by society.

I laughed aloud at the imitation swearing comment. A reference that made me snort but will only be caught by those who know old hymns. Maud surely knows how to make fun.

…had her moles removed by electrolysis—which Aunt Mildred thought was a wicked evasion of the puposes of God.

“There are things worse than death,” said Uncle James, believing that it was the first time in the world that such statement had been made.

Valancy lived with me for many days after I finished the book, a sign of a good read.

E. Goudge’s Island Magic

0848813421When Hope at Worthwhile Books reviewed Elizabeth Goudge’s first novel, I wanted to read it.  The setting is St. Pierre, the capital of Guernsey, a channel island between England and France. Island Magic quenches two of my current fascinations: island culture and late 19th century rural life.

André and Rachell du Frocq are barely eeking out a living on a farm called Bon Repos (“Good Rest” or, as I like to translate it, “Sweet Tranquility”), a place that comes with a benediction written on stone outside the farmhouse:

Harbour and good rest to those who enter here,
courage to those who go forth.
Let those who go and those who stay forget not God.

The characters of André, Rachell, their five children, Grandpapa, and the stranger Ranulph— who is taken in after a shipwreck—, are vivid and unique; they linger in my thoughts days after I finished the book. Among the five siblings are a humanitarian, a poet, a failed academic, an adventurer, and a joyspring.

The story is sad and yet not without hope. The children have individual minor tragedies, they also have the confidence and security of being part of a bustling family. The tension resides between husband and wife as they begin to think about conceding failure at farming. The stranger’s assistance is helping the bottom line, but brings more marital conflict.

Typical of Goudge, there is a fairy element in the story. Themes of faith, bitterness, the value of beauty, hard work, service, gratitude, grief and sacrifice make the story shimmer. One point of the plot beggars belief. Of course I can’t identify it without giving away part of the story.

Rarely—and happily— I come across a sentence, with which I can fully relate, and about something I’ve never before seen in literature. Island Magic delivered! This is used to be me!!

How thankful she was for her one great gift—the gift of making her nose bleed at will.

Here is a great Christmas quote:

Christmas Day at Bon Repos was something terrific. The du Frocqs took the whole of December preparing for it and the whole of January recovering from it.

Goudge’s mother was a native of Guernsey; summer visits to the grandparents were part of Goudge’s childhood. Her final thoughts on island living in this book are a bit idealistic, but they reflect some of the necessities of interpersonal relationships in a closed society.

You can’t be an individualist on our Island. There’s so much magic packed into so small a space. With the sea flung round us and holding us so tightly we are all thrown into each other’s arms—souls and seasons and birds and flowers and running water. People understand unity who live on an island. And peace. Unity is such peace.