Reading on the Island

Of all natural forms, there are few I enjoy more than islands. Islands seem to naturally convey our yearning for serenity and solitude, a world apart – although always linked – from the chaotic complications of modern life. In our cultural imagination, they are also linked with mystery and enchantment, harbouring stories just waiting to be told. Maybe it’s only because I’m hard-wired  (my own name means ‘little isle’)  but it’s sure hard to beat islands!

Earlier this month from our cottage’s deck in the Whiteshell, I often looked out onto a tiny isle on High Lake. For an entire hour one day a majestic male bald eagle was firmly perched atop one of the few evergreen growing on this beautiful spit of land, a beaming sentinel at home in his world. Gazing through binoculars didn’t seem satisfying enough. But by the time Lydia, my wife, and I got the canoe  on the lake to see it close-up, the eagle had flown away into the mist. Still, what a sight!

What books and movies offer interesting narratives on islands, you ask? Here’s a few tantalizing samples, perfect for summer reading/viewing:

Robert Zemeckis’ movie Castaway starring Tom Hanks is actually a fine example of island storytelling. After a plane crash, a compulsed FedEx employee, with a volleyball as his lone friend(!?), learns to slow down and reflect on the state of his life on a remote tropical island. Good stuff if you’re watching eating popcorn with a cool drink by your side.

Treasure Island‘ by Robert Louis Stevenson is an old classic, maybe the first in fiction to describe the unmistakable allure of islands in detail. But have you read the updated graphic novel version? The Library has it for you to borrow, conventional versions too, including audio. (Another historical classic: Jules Verne’s ‘The Mysterious Island‘.)


Shutter Island‘ by best-selling American author Dennis Lehane is a wonderful thriller about two U.S. marshals in 1954 investigating a shady psychological facility on a Boston harbour island. After reading the book, why not watch the compelling 2010 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo?

‘The Island of Doctor Moreau‘ by science-fiction great H.G. Wells (this edition introduced by Margaret Atwood!) plumbs the depth of the ‘abyss’ of what can be construed as human nature. It is a devilish tale about animal experimentation, moral responsibility, and human identity. You may want to read this one with all the lights on!

One of my favourite islands, which I would love to visit, is Sable Island, 300 km off the southeast coast of Nova Scotia. Known as the ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic’, this notorious sandbar is home to wild ponies, seals, birds, sand dunes, only a few residents, and at least 300 years of shipwrecks. Bruce Armstrong’s Sable Island is a great introduction to the myth and the reality that is Sable. The great news is that this 42-km long island, as of this year, is a National Park Reserve! An alternative title is: ‘Sable Island: The Strange Origins and Curious History of a Dune Adrift in the Atlantic‘ by Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hurtle.

Books and movies about islands have no end! A new mystery by Tracey Garvis-Graves, ‘On the Island’, released this summer, continues the long tradition. An English teacher and her student crash in the Indian Ocean. “Adrift in shark-infested waters, their life jackets keep them afloat until they make it to the shore of an inhabited island. Now Anna and T.J. just want to survive and they must work together to obtain water, food, fire, and shelter. Their basic needs might be met but as the days turn to weeks, and then months, the castaways encounter plenty of other obstacles, including violent tropical storms, the many dangers lurking in the sea, and the possibility that T.J.’s cancer could return.” I think this might be another page-turner.

- Lyle

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