When the lights were out after Irene, I had the great pleasure of reading this hybrid memoir-cum-history by Gott’s Island summer resident Christina Gillis. She and her husband John had just hosted Ian and me for a day-trip to Gott’s Island the week before, at the end of our Maine trip, so I had an eerie sense of recent physical memory of some of the places she describes — the dock, the granite “sidewalk” that surrounds the Atlantic side of the island where Ian and I caught juvenile mackerel, the open-ness of the old center of the village, and the constant presence of history, especially of the early 20th-century agricultural and fishing village that decided, apparently en masse, to vacate the island in the 1920s.
Christina’s book interweaves two painful human stories: the unexpected loss of her son Ben, who died in an air wreck in Kenya in 1991, and the death of Miss Peterson, a solitary Gott’s island resident whose house burned in the winter of 1926, when the island was depopulating. She also explores the life and works of the poet Ruth Moore, who formerly owned the house in which she and John have spent the past 40 summers.
The books’ central conceit — Christina is very much an English professor, with a specialty in the 18c novel — is writing on stone, the question of how permanent the marks humans make on a rocky coastal island can become. She spends quite a bit of time thinking and writing about the village cemetery — the cover image is a view of her house from the cemetery — and the book closes with a spare photo of Benjamin Gillis’s gravestone.
It’s not in any way a sentimental book, though as a parent I find the story simply terrifying. I also can’t help recalling that I’m roughly Ben’s age, and I also spent 1990-1 worrying my parents with far-off adventures, for me in Asia, Alaska, and Australia, rather than Africa. The book is a tribute to things that survive, and the limits of how deeply human beings can mark geography. She’s got a rich, measured tone when she writes about the island —
Never entirely fixed, our gauge of time and tide, the dock reflects the pace of life on the island. At low tide, with the pool an empty expanse of mud and stones, when the float sits inertly on the pebbly, shell-strewn ooze, the island falls into a lull, as if left to itself, to contemplation, to chores, to life that does not extend far beyond itself. It seems to wait for the incoming tide that will enable the dock to float and become once again the connecting point with the mainland. (15)
Ian and I had a charmed day on the magic granite of Gott’s. Feeling a bit like trespassers as we tromped up the beach with our fishing poles and tackle box, we arrived a low tide, and our boat, piloted by Christiana’s cousin, could not get to the dock. Islands are hermetic spaces — “not utopias,” Christina’s husband John, author of Islands of the Mind, laughingly insisted as we walked through the remnants of some old houses on the island’s spine, but closed and inward-looking.
That day, something happened that’s never happened to me before in all my years of fishing: I caught a fish with my first cast at our first spot, on the granite sidewalk, not far from the “box on the rocks” where Paul de Man apparently used to spend his summers writing. Ian also caught one with his first cast in our last spot of the day, at the dock that Christina describes as the heart of the island.
How possible is it to write on the stone of Gott’s island? The human history of those stones is relatively short, not even a blink inside their geological span. For the past 80 years or so the human side has only been a summertime story, since no on overwinters these days. “I hear the crickets on the island,” writes Christina, but “I will not see the frost” (167).