Reading, Reviews

Thoughts on Helen Hull’s Islanders

I looked forward to reading Islanders for months before I could get my hands on a copy. Our public libraries have no Helen Hull, and even my alma mater, a women’s liberal arts college, doesn’t have her in its library. I see that as a gross oversight. After reading Heat Lightning, I decided Helen Hull was an overlooked great writer. After reading Islanders, it has become clear to me she is an overlooked champion of the women’s movement. Reading the biographical information in the afterward by Patricia McLelland Miller confirmed that Hull was openly feminist. As a graduate of an English program steeped in feminist writing, reading this kind of book feels a little like coming home. Granted, it’s the kind of home you come home to but still have issues with. But I can still enjoy a good women’s movement book. Though I am not qualified to write a real review of  Islanders, here are some thoughts on the book.

Islanders~The Plot~ Islanders centers on the life of Ellen Dacey. The novel opens with the men in Ellen’s life leaving to on a quest for gold in California. The women are left to bear the brunt of the men’s questing, keeping the farm running and the family strong. Ellen is strongly opposed to her sweetheart’s leaving, but he goes despite her protests. The book follows Ellen’s life from this point to the end of her life. Through this stretch of years, Hull details how thwarted Ellen and the women around her are in their search for significance in the world. From mothers to aunts to daughters to nieces to wives, the portrayal of women in this novel is discouraging. Each one is trapped in a separate world, an island of men’s making where women must live. Ellen travels through life understanding that she is at the mercy of men in her life. She remains strong throughout the novel and readers may admire her strength, but she also remains bitter. She weathers many storms and changes in her life, making her a somewhat relatable character. Her life is hard, but she does her best to share wisdom with the people she thinks have a chance to use it to become more than she could.

~What I liked~I enjoy Hull’s writing style. It is very plain and pointed, but eloquent still. Her characters in Islanders are like the writing: stark, plain, and strong. Even the weaker characters have a strong presence in the novel. Each character adds to the overall meaning. I  thought it was interesting to see the progression of someone living in the midwest to the East Coast, but the settings didn’t make all that much difference because the whole point of the book was to show how isolated women are. Where they live doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot in the women’s lives. I also liked all the nature symbolism. I can really get into symbolism if I’m not careful. =)

~What I didn’t like~There was so much stark, narrative honesty on the motives for each character’s actions, I came to dislike more than like every one of the characters. The only character I really liked was John Thurston, Ellen’s nephew,  though not her favorite nephew. He acted on purer motives and showed sacrificial love unlike anyone else in the book, aside from maybe Ellen’s mother, Martha, and Ellen at times. In an interesting twist that shows how Ellen herself bought into the popular thinking on what successful manhood is, Ellen loved her handsome, charismatic nephew, Rob, best of all. When Rob becomes an adult, she sees how the control and charm he exhibits as a child and then a man is a way he gets what he wants out of life. She then appreciates and respects the quiet, thoughtful yet tenacious younger brother more for his eschewing of traditional success and choosing from his heart in his marriage and his career. He is the only truly decent male character in the whole book. Otherwise, the men are domineering and money-minded and the women are weak. There is hope at the end of the book that Ellen’s great niece, Anne, will “get off the island” and be a strong person, at least inwardly.

While the book is a great piece of writing and very thought provoking, I felt I was reading a skewed perspective on life. I am glad that things have changed since the 1850-1920 period and that the patriarchal family structure is not stifling as it once was. Still, I can’t come to grips with the way Hull portrayed all women as thwarted and unhappy. Her agenda seems a bit too heavy handed in this book, and I doubt it is a true picture of all women in that time period. There isn’t a clear picture of what Hull believes a woman should be or what situations are right for them. The women who are mothers in the book are discontented. One dulls her pain with overeating and another with finery. One woman who cannot become the wife and mother she longs (and is expected) to be drives herself into a fantasy world and eventually into death. The most loving mother and independent woman in the book dies young. Education leaves one woman right where she was before college. You get the idea? All women in this book are unhappy. My question remains “what would make the women happy?” True love? None of the marriages are portrayed in a happy light. What will bring these women satisfaction? Independence? Maybe. The closest Ellen gets to joy is loving the children in her life. I’m left only with the rather unsatisfying idea that inner strength is the answer to being a complete person. Ellen often looks at the earth, from when she was on farmland to when she lived on the seashore, as a symbol of resilience and strength. Mother Earth becomes a symbol for what women’s strength should be like: deep, subtle, but always present and constant despite the world of men.

Perhaps I live in a world too different from Ellen’s to argue with Hull’s interpretation of a woman’s life. Still, Islanders did not sit well with me. I was fascinated by the view into the world of women in the 1800s/early1900s, but I have a hard time believing every woman was as unfulfilled as the Dacey women. I now would love to read some diaries of women of the time and see what their thoughts and feelings were on their positions in life. I’m grateful for my freedoms now, grateful that women can make their own way, but at this stage in my life, I find my life’s work and passion in my family. Perhaps I am happy to be an Islander.

If you enjoy learning about  the early feminist movement and its literature, or have a background in/love for early 20th century literature, you need to read Islanders. And then you need to come back and tell me what you think. Though I didn’t wholly enjoy the story line, the writing is the work of a true master of words. And I am thankful for a book that requires its readers to think hard about where true significance in life lies.

Children's Books, Everyday Life, Parenting, Reading, Reviews

August Reading, Part 1

This is a two-part post because it’s looking like I’ll have to do two August reading posts. August has yielded a bumper crop of good books so far.

I’ll post full reviews of the books I’ve read in the next few days.


Wildwood Dancing (Wildwood, #1)Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier is a retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, but with many additions and twists. I fully enjoyed how Marillier made the fairy tale into a completely developed plot full of lifelike characters, but kept the fanciful and enchanted feel of the story. There is so much more to this story than the original fairy tale. The princesses in the real story are middle class merchant daughters in this story, and there are only five of them. The enchanted place they go to is actually a parallel world. The secrets to their futures is entrenched in one tragic day from the past. The book takes readers into Transylvania of long ago, before Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Marillier uses original folklore and Romanian language to enhance her tale. It’s got a lot going for it! This book is a gem of a novel masquerading as a run of the mill Young Adult book. I’d give it 4.5 stars and recommend it for anyone who likes a fun and imaginative tale.


IslandersI finally finished Islanders by Helen Hull this month! There are many themes one could discuss in Islanders; it’s kind of Edith Wharton meets Laura Ingalls meets Kate Chopin. I think I liked it. It certainly is the handiwork of a great author, whose characters are complex and honestly portrayed, so much so that one can’t actually love them whole-heartedly. The book was a survey of womanhood in the 1850s-1920s, told through the life of Ellen Dacey. The major theme is isolation and dependence. I didn’t like it as much as Heat Lightning, but I did enjoy its perspective. More to come in the full review!


The Weird SistersMy favorite book of the month was The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown. I picked up this book off a random “to be shelved” cart near the children’s section at 2nd & Charles. While my children perused the Thomas and Friends and Curious George selection, I read the first chapter, and then reserved it at the library on my iPhone. It is a quirky story of three sisters. Their father is a somewhat eccentric Shakespeare professor at Barnwell College in Ohio. The sisters are different, but so very alike. The references to the reading culture of the entire family and the insights into a family of three girls sometimes made me smile. I am one of three sisters, and there are definitely similarities between the sisters in this book and my own sisters and I (however, my sisters are way more awesome than the younger two sisters in this book). If you are a hardcore Shakespeare scholar, you probably won’t like this book, but if you are a casual fan of Shakespeare and family life novels, you’ll like this one.

The nonfiction hanging out on my nightstand this month is Francis Schaeffer on the Christian Life: Countercultural Spirituality. I am a painfully slow biography reader, but I thank my book group leader for picking out this book. It has challenged me, for sure.

And…drumroll…I started pre-K homeschooling with my 4-year-old, Ella, this week. We are doing some basic letter sounds and writing, and reading a book

Right now we’re reading The Boxcar Children. Any suggestions for chapter books for a little girl with a sharp mind and sensitive heart? I’d love to hear them!

What are you reading this month?

Everyday Life

If I Could Be A Facebook God: Thoughts on Monday

It’s Monday again. I don’t have a problem with Monday. Monday is a good day, a day when I get the house back in order after the weekend, ease the kids back into a routine, wash loads and loads of laundry, and stay home as much as possible. I like Mondays. Still, I try to avoid Facebook on Monday mornings. It makes me depressed to see all the statuses that read something along the lines of “Sigh…Monday…back to work…hate my life…” etc. Depressed and kind of a little angry. I know life throws lemons at you sometimes and there is no sugar for the lemonade in sight…but maybe there’s a Publix or something a few miles down the road? Maybe we can put some effort into finding some sugar to sweeten the sour days?


Winter is for reading. But here’s my Summer Reading List.

I realized today that though I write a book blog, I am remiss in that I have not posted my summer reading list. My excuse is that I don’t have a reason in this era of my life to view summer as any different from other seasons when it comes to reading. In fact, if I had to pick a season during which I spend the most time reading, it would definitely be winter. I despise cold weather, and we had a particularly wet winter this past year. I loathed it, but I did get a lot of reading in. However, I love all the ideas floating around about what one should read during the summer. Some readers use the summer months to take a break from deep thinking and pick up lighter fiction. Some readers use the extra time to really dig deep into some breathtakingly impressive classic by Trollope like The  Way We Live Now. I don’t really have a summer reading philosophy, except to read what I think I’ll love reading. I also read, and sometimes even enjoy, a few non-fiction books in the summer because I do actually care about shaping my mind and character and all that.

So here’s what’s on my  list:

Redfield Farm: A Novel of the Underground RailroadRedfield Farm: A Novel of the Underground Railroad – The rave reviews of this book are killing me because I want to read it so badly but none of my local libraries even have it on order. I’ll have to break down and buy it.

The Wednesday Sisters – Books about writers always intrigue me.

Islanders – As I wrote in this post about Helen Hull’s Heat Lightning, I would like to read everything by Hull now that I’ve gotten started. One of my readers said I would probably like Islanders so I’m hoping to get a hold of it in the next few weeks.

The Light Between Oceans – Some of my favorite bloggers have really enjoyed this book, so I’m looking forward to The Light Between Oceansfinding out what all the love is about. The plot sounds kind of like a short story by L.M. Montgomery I read a long time ago. So it has that going for it.

The Princess and the Goblin – I’ve never read anything by George MacDonald, but I have read a lot by C.S. Lewis and the fact that MacDonald had a huge impact on Lewis is enough for me to know that I need to read at least some of his work. I’ve been told to start with The Princess and the Goblin but if you have other advice, please let me know!

Educating the Wholehearted Child – I am a little unsure of what a “wholehearted” child is but it sounds like a noble goal and I love Sally Clarkson’s book The Mission of Motherhood. I’m pretty sure we’ll be starting some homeschooling this fall with Ella, my four-year-old, so I think it’s important to start thinking through some long term goals for my children’s education.

The Hiding Place – I realized this year that I read an abridged version of this as a child but I haven’t ever read the real thing. With my recent and unintentional literary focus on WWII, I would be a terrible former history minor if I didn’t read this book, too. Also, the copy of the book we have is signed by the author. Trust me, I don’t have many books signed by the author.

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake – I don’t always love Southern Literature, even though I’ve lived here all my life. But that doesn’t The Homecoming of Samuel Lakereally mean anything–who can say they love all of a certain genre? I picked this book up at the library last week and read a few pages and I think it has potential. I hate how often reviewers of Southern Lit books say something along the lines of “Fans of  To Kill a Mockingbird will love this book,” because that seems like some kind of literary heresy, but I have to admit that statements like that do get my attention.

And that’s pretty much my list for the next few months. I will definitely read other books that are not on this list and I will probably not finish all of these books. Reading lists are more like guidelines in my world right now. Also,  I’m a quitter when it comes to reading for pleasure. If I don’t like it or can’t find some good reason for finishing a book, I simply don’t finish it. There is not enough time in the world to read bad books. Or even good books that I don’t like. But I like having  a list and I like seeing other people’s reading lists, too. So what’s on your list this summer?

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