Island stories almost always end in regret. The marooned couple finally succeeds in flagging down a rescue ship and, before they know it, they've had to shed their sarongs, tear the frangipani blossoms from their hair and get on with real life. Goodbye, grass shack. Good-bye, blue lagoon.
For Elizabeth Arthur, the trappings are somewhat different. Her island is a frozen smudge of land on the edge of civilization in British Columbia. She and her husband have chosen to maroon themselves here and they've come equipped to stay, bringing lumber, clothing, their dog and their cat, stocking up with flour, sugar, coffee and tea. But this is an island story after all. In the end, Arthur and husband, sure as any shipwrecked couple,call for rescue. After two years, their dream of island life has slowly faded, like a tropical sunset.
In "Island Sojourn," Arthur has kept a precise accounting of this dream. She knows just how many joists (90), studs (150) and pounds of nails (100) went into the building of their island house. She knows the weight and the volume of the supplies that got them through a winter (18 cords of firewood, half a ton of foodstuff). She can tellyou exactly how much money it took to support this kind of dream ($18,000 in the first few months). Arthur was 20 years old when she and her husband bought their nameless three-acre island. She wanted to escape from life in the"materialistic world."
Arthur was 20 years old, too, when she began the journal that makes up the substance of this book. If, in places, she gushes like a 20-year-old, it's worth it to read on. Because, for the most part, she tells her story in prose that is as clear and compelling as the water in the lake. And in island stories, of course, it is the water that matters. For islanders, water is the prison, the protection, the obsession. Water is what makes the world.
The water in this case is Stuart Lake a wild, bright, treacherous spot. Local people describe it as "a man's lake," which, Arthur says, means "simply that it has killed many men." Stuart Lake takes on many forms for Elizabeth Arthur. It is all the elements mixed into one.
In winter, when its great ice chunks form and finally mesh, the lake is earth, a plain of snow, solid and unthinkably cold. In storms, the lake takes its shape from the air. Winds toss water into the sky. Clouds open up and pour it back. Mist swirls somewhere in between. And on one clear freezing night, when the island house is about to erupt into flame, the lake is even a premonition of fire. As arthur looks out into the dark, the path to the water"curls sinuously" as smoke, the beach "flickers" in the distance.
But ultimately, inevitably, the lake is water. Things sink into it. Some of them are never seen again. Arthur and her husband weight their leaky, usedup boat with rocks and send it to the bottom. Then, as if to show who's boss, the lake puffs up and swallows their new boat all on its own. And one night, in their last island winter, when the dream has already begun to fade, three young Indian men drive their snowmobiles onto the frozen lake. One after the other they speed off the edge of the ice, into the black frigid water.Arthur knew the youths. She heard the din of their snowmobiles on the ice that night. The episode haunts her.
"I see the last ten seconds of that trip over and over," she writes. "The sudden sight of the open water; the desperate attempt to stop. A stifling fear of death filling the last moments of their lives. The moment when the water closes above their heads. Ridingtheir machines down through the black lake, until the machines fall away below, dropping faster even than the bodies."
What finally ends the island sojourn is not sunken boats, burnt houses or the death of friends. It is not the cold, the wind or the wolves that moan nearby at night. Or, perhaps, it is a little bit of all these things. But, most of all, it is simply that this particular dream no longer fits Elizabeth Arthur.It is too thin, too small, too daft a dream. The island doesn't dazzle her. The water cannot keep her in place. Already, her best writing deals with the other side of the lake -- when the poor roughneck trading towns, with the hard messy way of Indian life.
In the end, Arthur needs the real world. And we need more writing from her about the real world. Meanwhile, she has given us her island story and something more -- a rare, honest look at a dream gone flat, like an old balloon, like a frangipani pressed between the pages of a book.