San Miguel

Written by T.C. Boyle
Review by Waheed Rabbani

In 1888, Marantha and Will Waters sail to one of California’s Channel Islands, San Miguel, to operate a sheep ranch. Accompanying them are their 14-year-old adopted daughter, Edith, and three hired hands. Marantha, suffering from consumption, hopes that the “salubrious air” will rejuvenate her failing health. However, they find the winter conditions extremely harsh. The cold wind, persistent rain, and fog are just as appalling as in San Francisco. After only a few months, coughing up blood, Marantha passes away, and Edith absconds from the island. She detests the authoritarian attitude of her stepfather and aspires to be an actress.

The novel’s timeframe jumps to 1930 as we are introduced to new arrivals. Elise and Herbie Lester take over as overseers of the same ranch, assisted by the former owners’ farmhand, Jimmie. Since conditions have improved somewhat, and it being spring, their introduction to the land is painless, and they enjoy the idyllic environment. Elise gives birth to two daughters. The inventions and conveniences of the modern age, such as an airstrip, reach the island and make their life comfortable. The mainland press nicknames them “the Swiss Family Lester.” Jimmie provides the link to the former residents, the Waterses. However, the Lesters encounter tragic events as well.

Since the 1719 publication of Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe, novels with descriptions of life on remote islands have enthralled readers, and the same will be true of this book, too. San Miguel provides insight into islanders’ ingenuity and the intense struggles of man against nature, both requisite for existing in a harsh environment and achieving self-reliance. Boyle’s dual-period plots are based on true stories and, although the link between them is weak, they present a contrasting narrative. It illustrates how both the Waterses and Lesters failed to achieve their dream of freedom on an isolated island. Recommended.