Monday, March 18, 2013

San Miguel

San Miguel
T. C. Boyle

San Miguel is one of the Channel Islands in the Santa Barbara Channel off the coast of California. If you're picturing a warm, sunny Mediterranean climate like that of Santa Barbara, you'd be wrong. Vicious winds pound the treeless landscape, laden with sand that punishes buildings and people alike. The prose describing these conditions is potent. If you're at all suggestible, you'll want to be warm and cosy as you read.

Yet this desolate landscape has been home to sheep ranchers, and T. C. Boyle's San Miguel follows two such families--the Waters who arrived in the 1880s and the Lesters who arrived in the 1930s.

The story is told through the eyes of three women: Marantha Waters, her adopted daughter Edith, and Elise Lester.  Both families arrive on the island due to the fervent drive of the husbands, Will Waters and Herbie Lester.  Both men are veterans, Will of the Civil War and Lester of the First World War, both face poor prospects, and both work extremely hard to eke a penurious subsistence out of the ranch while their wives cook endless roasts of lamb and try to make a comfortable home in the inhospitable locale.

Will Waters is a tyrannical, miserable cuss who has inveigled Marantha's money to buy into the ranch on the false pretence that the climate will be beneficial for her tuberculosis.  Marantha strives to maintain a positive attitude in the face of the harsh elements, the damp rot and rodents that infest the tumbledown house, and isolation relieved only by the arrival of the sheep shearers and the odd fisherman. However, it's clear she's fighting a losing battle against her conditions and worsening disease. Marantha tries to pass on her remaining money to Edith to give her independence, but Edith ends up trapped with the abusive Will as a beleaguered servant, desperate to escape.

Matters are somewhat better for Elise Lester. From a wealthy eastern family, this spinster librarian thought she'd never marry, until the charming Herbert Lester appears in her life.  She falls in love with Herbie and approaches the island as a great adventure, where she and Herbie build a strong family with their two daughters.  Although still challenging, conditions have improved on San Miguel since Marantha and Edith served out their sentences. The house is in much better shape and, although life is still lonely enough that the arrival of the sheep shearers is a big event, it is enlivened by the frequent visits of recreational yachters from Santa Barbara and a friend with a plane who never fails to arrive with many goodies in hand. 

The tale of the Lesters was my favourite part of the book. Elise is a sensitive foil to the obviously bipolar, lovable Herbie and the two treat their isolated existence with their daughters as a privilege, insulated from the nasty things that happen in the rest of the world.  The press idealizes their existence and for a brief period they are characterized as a Swiss Family Robinson leading an idyllic, self-sufficient pioneer existence.

T. C. Boyle brings these characters to life.  But for me, even though the stories were told through the eyes of the women, it was the men and the island who made the most powerful impression in this excellent book.

- Lib Gibson

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