Lucy and Todd

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San Miguel — TC Boyle

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on October 15, 2012 at 2:25 pm

San Miguel is one of the “channel islands” off Santa Barbara, California – the best-known of these, and the only one that is really inhabited, is Catalina; another, San Nicolas, was the setting of Island Of The Blue Dolphins, the prize-winning children’s book of the 1960s.

Having said that, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, several of these tall, beautiful and terribly windswept isles were sketchily inhabited by some fishermen and, more particularly, sheep ranchers. TC Boyle’s intriguing novel (loosely based, it seems, on several memoirs of the place) takes this as its subject: two or three generations of several families that managed to scrape a living, at too high a price, off San Miguel island.

The high winds in the Santa Barbara Channel drove many ships aground on San Miguel – it was known as the Graveyard of the Pacific. It’s also a wrecker of marriages, women and sanity. The first family to arrive there in the story is that of Captain Will Waters, an injured veteran of the Civil War. With him are his wife, Marantha, and stepdaughter Edith.

Marantha is tubercular and has been persuaded to leave San Francisco for the healthier air of the island, although it turns out it is hardly that. The house they arrive at is a ruin, and Marantha becomes a martyr to it. Edith is a booky girl with a passion for the gothic who gets more than she bargained for as her life becomes something out of one of her novels: Lawrencian games with a farm hand and wicked stepfather to boot.

Edith tries many times to escape her life – you feel her frantic panic and it’s very effective. When she finally succeeds, it’s part of the literary aplomb of this book that she more or less disappears from it: Boyle is determined to root the story’s consciousness firmly on the island and in its particular brand of grimness. The narration is achieved from the point of view of three women and you huddle there with them.
It is a very immediate book: you will feel a lot of physical pain in reading it. Not only that of illness and heartache but literally from the effort involved in walking up a hill of mud to the house, in chopping wood, butchering lambs and shifting rocks. In watching the Waters family mend and decorate their cheerless new domain, you learn almost everything about them – it would be a good idea if we had to watch all characters in novels build their own houses.

About 25 years after the Waters family has disintegrated, another veteran, this time of the First World War, brings his wife to the island in a haze of champagne and Babbitt-like big talk. Why, you wonder, do men get so excited about this place?

This time there is an acceptable house, built by Captain Waters before he died, but the problems of remoteness and the weather attack Herbie and Elise Lester the same way. They try to educate their daughters on the island but as the Great Depression takes hold, the family finds itself the object of intrusive scrutiny by the press: reporters flock to interview the “Swiss Family Lester” and the public is rapt by the idea of these four people out there all alone, their existence sustained only by the twice-annual sale of wool.

Herbie thinks that all this publicity will be good for the family, that they’ve been out of civilisation too long. But when the stupid end of civilization comes to call, he loses his way. And at this point San Miguel becomes a really interesting rumination on who is and who is not equipped to be alone: the women are (not that they want to be) and the men, profoundly, are not.

Boyle can be a daring writer and at times you fear that San Miguel is going to turn into Cold Comfort Farm, or The Women At Point Sur, or even a Roger Corman movie. But it doesn’t. It’s extraordinarily direct, sympathetic and pretty, with Boyle’s characteristic aliveness to the past and its telling little details. It’s almost as if he writes to us from there.


The Herald, Oct. 13, 2012