Island of Wings

Written by Karin Altenberg
Review by Cindy Vallar

In 1830, the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge sends the Reverend Neil MacKenzie to St. Kilda, the remotest of the Scottish islands, where fulmars, gannets, and puffins outnumber residents by the thousands. The independent and stalwart villagers need his spiritual guidance, for how else can he bring them from the backward ways of their Gaelic ancestors into the 19th century? Doubts and guilt plague Neil, however, for the death of a close friend haunts him. Just when he believes he’s succeeded in his task, the old superstitions and rituals return and threaten all that he’s striven for.

Lizzie, pregnant with their first child, has romantic ideas, which ill-prepare her for the realities of life among the St. Kildans. They speak Gaelic, a language only her husband knows, and her inability to communicate isolates her even more in this barren and strange world that is now her home. Not until two naturalists visit the island a year later does she comprehend the depth of her loneliness. With the help of a young girl, fluent in both languages, Lizzie slowly becomes involved in the islanders’ lives. But as she does, the rift between her and her husband widens. Mysterious sightings and strange occurrences eventually threaten to expand that rift into a chasm that can never be crossed.

Altenberg spins her tale with such deftness and vividness that readers step with trepidation onto the island, hear the howling wind on a stormy night, feel repulsion while crawling into one of the filthy hovels, rejoice at the birth of newborns and the return of the birds, weep when death claims the children. Island of Wings is a poignant story of hope, sorrow, disbelief, faith, and maturity that indelibly engraves itself into your heart and mind.