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.
~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.