In her beautiful memoir, Surviving the Island of Grace: A Memoir of Alaska, Leslie Leyland Fields maps the terrain of an isolated place — one small island (Bear Island) off the coast of a larger island (Kodiak) and then another small island (Harvester). The life Leslie lives on Harvester beckons time and time again themes of her growing up poor, her time at Cedarville University learning how to become a writer, her marriage to Duncan and his family’s roots in Alaska, and then her own 30+ summers fishing salmon in the never-fearful waters of Alaska. Leslie writes with a novelist’s skill in setting up a chapter and the essayists joy in shuffling about in life’s experiences. But she writes for us a memoir.
What memoirs are you reading of late?
Memoir has a higher rating than does essay writing, as Phillip Lopate, one of America’s finest essayists and whose collection — The Art of the Personal Essay — I often recommend to would-be writers and to all preachers, has recently observed:
I like the freedom that comes with lowered expectations. In the area of literary nonfiction, memoirs attract much more attention than essay collections, which are published in a modest, quasi-invisible manner, in keeping with anticipated lower sales. But despite periodic warnings of the essay’s demise, the stuff does continue to be published; if anything, the essay has experienced a slight resurgence of late. I wonder if that may be because it is attuned to the current mood, speaks to the present moment. At bottom, we are deeply unsure and divided, and the essay feasts on doubt.
There’s not all that much certainty in Surviving the Island of Grace but neither is it a sloshing around in doubt with little concern for coming up for air, which is what happened often to Leslie and Duncan and others — the ocean has no respect for humans or anyone or anything else. It does what it does, and if you have the equipment to handle it you can; if you don’t, it handles you; easier, of course, to stay on shore. Reading this memoir made me crave the land.
Kris and I eat salmon twice a week normally; we do all we can to purchase “wild caught” salmon, and that’s what Duncan and Leslie do in the summers — catch those wild salmon and enter them into the market. I learned more about salmon fishing than I knew, heard vocabulary about fishing nets and boats and instruments I had not heard before, but what most impressed me was the grind of salmon “picking.” The waters don’t calm for the pickers nor do soften so the worker can repair the nets. Neither do the winds consider the human; they too come as they will and she and her family experienced more than one scrape with death because of sudden shifts in wind and weather.
There is a baring of the heart in this book. Leslie tells the story of her father and her youth in New Hampshire in a way that saddened this reader — and she’s about to publish a new book on her relationship with her parents — and establishing a marriage in the tensions of summer salmon fishing when the husband’s experience and strength and occasional outburst test the connecting lines of the relationship. Fishing the hard hours in Alaska made it hard for Leslie to continue her own contribution to the fishing business and nurture her three children, and that too gave the book an added contour as it gave their life complexity. And they set up a home all by themselves on an island in the middle of it. Through it all she journaled and wrote and got two master’s degrees and Duncan a law degree.
Simple things take work — like washing clothes (how to acquire sufficient water when lugging buckets of water), like bathing and showering (too hard to do daily), like mail (once a week), and like finding supplies when the weather can suddenly prevent travel. The starkness of existence unmasks the assumptive life we carry on daily — water and electricity and mail and internet come to our homes with ease, the ease of years of labor and sophisticated technological inventions and improvements. Harvester Island reduces life to the basics.
Leslie is not just a good writer; and she’s not just got a good story to tell, but she now conducts writing seminars up in Alaska and if you’d like to see more about that, check this. Last year Leslie wrote a piece in CT with the title that the gospel is more than story, which more than got my attention, and I disagreed a bit even if I liked so much of what she had to say, but an article is after all only a snippet of one’s thinking … so I’m glad I had the opportunity to meet her more completely in this wonderful memoir, and I hope you read it too!