Helen Hull is my current literary heroine. Her books are practically all out of print and she is largely forgotten, but this sad state of affairs bears absolutely no relation to her talent. Islanders is the third of her books that I have read, and once again I was blown away by her atmospheric, emotive writing that is so insightful about humanity. The closest author I can compare her to is probably Dorothy Whipple, in the sense that her books focus very much on the domestic, family environment and women’s role within it, though she is also very like Dorothy Canfield in her compassionate and wise understanding of women, and also like Willa Cather in her clear, uncluttered, evocative prose that so effortlessly brings to life the barren clapboard and dirt road landscape of the 19th century American Mid-West.
Islanders is the story of Ellen Dacey, who, when the novel opens, is a teenager living in a small Mid Western town in the 1840s. She is engaged to Matthew, a neighbour, but their marriage is being postponed while he, along with Ellen’s older brother Rob and a group of other men from their town, are going out West to try and strike their fortune in the gold mines. They plan to go for a year, earn the type of money they could never dream of making from their farms, and then come back triumphant, able to revitalise their backwater town. Ellen is sceptical; she sees no reason for them to go, and she hates Matthew for it. Just when she was looking forward to a life and a home of her own, she is left with her ageing parents and younger brother to hold the fort while the young men get to go and have the adventures she longs for. However, the situation is worse than Ellen fears; her father Thurston Senior plans to ride out with the boys to the point where they will be met by the wagon trail. When he doesn’t return after two days, they begin to worry. Then a messenger boy comes; Thurston couldn’t resist the call to adventure – he has gone along with them. Ellen’s long suffering mother Martha swallows her pain and anger at being left behind and throws herself into managing the farm, expecting Ellen and Sarah, Rob’s pregnant wife, to do the same. Life must go on, and there is work to do.
A year passes; the men fail to return. The years continue to pass, becoming a decade, then fifteen years, then sixteen, with still no word from the men. Ellen and Martha have formed a self sufficient life and the farm flourishes under Ellen’s keen eye for business. Then, completely by surprise, Thurston Senior returns home nearly twenty years after he left, with nothing but a few nuggets of gold in his pocket and the expectation that he will take back control of his land. His return is a double blow to Ellen; not only does it destroy her independence, but also her hope of marriage, as she must finally accept that Matthew is never coming back. Shortly afterwards, Martha dies and Thurston Junior wrests control of the farm from Ellen and his father, demanding that they move in with his family. At nearly 40, Ellen is forced out of her beloved home and taken from the farm work that she finds so deeply satisfying. Thurston’s lazy, snobbish wife Grace uses her as a maid and a nanny to her children, Robbie, Alice and John Thurston, but far from resenting this, Ellen comes to relish her role as an aunt. Robbed of the chance to become a wife and mother, she sensitively and tenderly cares for her nephews and niece, particularly doting on Robbie. When Civil War is declared, again the men ride off, leaving Ellen to keep everything going. When the men return, she must retreat into the background like she did before, important only to the children.
As time goes on, and people age, change, move away and die, Ellen’s life remains the same. As new generations are born and grow up, Ellen becomes ever more frustrated at the ‘islands’ she perceives that she and the other women in her family are forced to live upon. They are left stranded at home in their own self contained, limited worlds, becoming variously soft, ineffectual and desperate as their dreams and hopes are squandered while their men are free to go and pursue their dreams, make their fortunes and dictate the course of the women’s lives. Ellen has made the best of things; she has been the solid foundation for the rest of her family, supporting them through tragedy and turmoil, never complaining about her lot. Inside, though, she has been railing against her situation, determined to see the day when women can be more than just dependents and leave the islands they have been trapped upon.
This is such a fantastic novel. Set across three generations, with Ellen as the lynchpin between them, it is a remarkable picture of women’s lives during a rapidly changing period in American history. Hull creates in Ellen a beautiful, brave woman whose capacity for endurance is almost superhuman. She doesn’t let her disappointment and her frustration colour her life; instead, she takes each day as it comes, influencing what she can and making the most of every opportunity she has: a true feminist. She comes alive on the page, as does the world she lives in; from mid 19th century pioneer town to turn of the century New York, Hull creates a sense of place that echoes variously both Ellen’s sense of entrapment as well as the expansive nature of her soul. It is beautifully written and totally absorbing; I loved every minute of reading it. Islanders has been reprinted by the Feminist Press and is available from the Book Depository postage free, so none of you have any excuse not to read it!!