One of the strengths of this book–at least for me in terms of our reading challenge–is the acknowledged contrast between Chicago and the small town of Cypress, north of Duluth, Minnesota. Several times it’s noted that Cathryn’s infidelity would hardly be noticed in Chicago, but in Cypress she, and even those who associate with her–like Isobel and her daughter–are ostracized by the community.
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with a focus on those where the setting becomes another character in the story, or where we learn something about the people, geography or history of the state. Right now we are in Minnesota.
These Granite Islands tells the story of Isobel, and her unconventional friendship with Cathryn. Cathryn comes to Lake Cypress with her mine-owner husband from Chicago. Her bubbly personality, and love of literature and poetry, as well as her willingness to flout the small-minded attitudes of the small-town locals, make her irresistible to Isobel–and her teenaged daughter, Louisa–and the three quickly form a fast friendship. The friendship is put under stress, however, when Cathryn falls in love with Jack, a ranger who mans the local fire watch tower. As the story develops, we begin to realize that Cathryn also probably suffers from bipolar disorder, though at the time the book is set, this wasn’t as well-known or well-defined, and treatment was not very effective.
I love that the story is so sympathetic to Cathryn. While Cathryn’s illness is somewhat romanticized, I love that Isobel accepts her for who she is. She worries about the consequences of the choices Cathryn makes, and she is concerned that Jack doesn’t understand Cathryn’s dual nature and may be unprepared to support her in her depression–she isn’t blind to how the disorder affects Cathryn–but she also recognizes that both sides are part of her friend and that just because Cathryn’s husband is aware of the disorder and does what he can to treat it, that doesn’t necessarily make him the best match for Cathryn.
I also really liked the realistic portrayal of Isobel’s grief and mourning process after Cathryn and Jack disappear–not to mention the supportive way her husband helps her grieve. Speaking of which, I was also impressed with the way Stonich develops the character of Victor. We are primed, from his first appearance–with liquor on his breath, having foregone Christmas presents for the children–to dislike him, but we are won over by the respectful way he treats Isobel–involving her in decision-making, not doubting her (or at least not expressing that doubt) despite the rumors around town on his return, not demeaning or belittling her vocation as a milliner.
As for the Minnesota setting, there are wonderful descriptions of woodland plants and flowers and birds. They are often more like lists of local flora, but there is usually enough detail to give more of a depth to the text.
Once someone had attempted a garden along the front of the cottage, but wild cinnamon ferns and sumac had taken over. A bright wave of sweet woodruff thrived in the sour earth of pine needles, and a raft of bergamot drifted toward the door. The slender clematis on the stone pillars of an arbor was shouldered to the side by a rigorous curtain of climbing wood rose.
This sort of listing can sometimes seem like an afterthought, but it works very well when Isobel is sorting and unpacking bird feathers for the millinery trade.
Henry and Thomas scoured the woods and searched the riverbanks for abandoned nests, and their prizes emerged from skins of tissue paper in subdued hues–pheasant, grouse, and guinea hen, waxwing and partridge. A more colorful selection lay beneath–carnival splashes of jay, scarlet tanager, blue bunting, yellow finch, and oriole. Exotic feathers and whole, preserved wings ordered from catalogs had arrived in vellum packets tagged with the Latin names–Ortalis vetula, Anser cygnoides, Paroaria, Estrilda. One caught Isobel’s eye, Gracula religiosa, and she smiled at the name, thinking it rather showy for the simple mynah bird.
I noticed that the bird feathers she mentions as having been found by her sons include guinea hen, which made me wonder how they came across those. Guinea fowl are African birds, originally, but have been commonly raised for eggs, so it’s possible the boys found their feathers at a friend’s farm rather than in the woods. The feathers are striking with the spots, and they are something I’m sure I’ve seen on hats, so definitely authentic.
A note about the partridge, also listed above: the online Audubon Field Guide says the Gray Partridge was introduced from Europe as a game bird in the 1790s, and was somewhat successful in establishing itself on the northern prairies. Currently, its range doesn’t really extend to the area of Minnesota near Lake Superior where this book takes place (Cypress is supposed to have been north of Duluth, which is on the westernmost tip of Lake Superior), however the guide does say that populations have declined, so perhaps that range has shrunk a bit since the 1930s when the book is set. It’s also possible that the “partridge” listed above is a more generic reference to any one of a number of small game birds that would have been common and whose feathers were commonly used for hats. Many of the images I found of hats seemed to use the words “partridge” and “pheasant” interchangeably, sometimes interspersed with “chukar,” or “grouse.”
I probably shouldn’t, but I’m going to add Cedar Waxwing, Blue Jay, Scarlet Tanager, American Goldfinch, Indigo Bunting, and Baltimore Oriole to my Life List of Birds in Books for Minnesota, along with the Common Loon, Northern Cardinal, European Starling, and Common Grackle. The latter we actually see, while the former are mentioned specifically as identified feathers found locally–all are common in that area.
One of the main geographic features that I’m coming to recognize as typically Minnesota is the waterways. Minnesota is known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but in most of the books we’ve covered so far, it’s the murky mix of lake and river that is more characteristic of the state, rather than simple lakes. In These Granite Islands, it’s even called the Maze.
On the map the Maze looked like an elongated torso with writhing limbs, its watery arms narrowed into thin hands with thinner fingers, and those channels tapered to curl back on themselves like a Chinaman’s fingernails. Many passages were no wider than a canoe, and as many dead-ended at cliffs or widened to feather out once again into bogs or low tamarack forests.
(I don’t particularly like the comparison to a “Chinaman’s fingernails,” but it’s an image that is dated to the correct time period, and fits the description.)
Rounding the last curve, where according to the map there should have been a bay, she felt a tug of panic. Instead of a bay, a low, ragged-edged island all but took up the space. As she looked down to check the map a third time, something shifted at the corner of her eye. The island in front of her had moved. Moved? A trick of the light. Isobel sank her paddle into the mud bottom to still the canoe’s movement. To make sure she was seeing right, she lined up the trees on the island with those on the shoreline with her index finger, watched them meet up, shift, line up again. The island drifted as if pulled by an invisible cable.
After this, I had to look up information on floating islands, and came up with this funny–and surprisingly informative–article on Atlas Obscura about a giant floating bog in Minnesota. Apparently this kind of thing is pretty common in Minnesota (and around the world–on every continent except Antarctica). The bogs are mostly dead matter and only loosely attached, and occasionally they work themselves free and drift around, causing headaches for landowners, who often call the Department of Natural Resources for advice or help. The recommendation usually involves using 10-foot (or longer) poles to stake the island in place. In the case of the giant bog, it was more than four acres across and was crushing docks!
Both Stonich’s book and the article above mention tamarack trees, which got me wondering about the root system involved–do tamarack trees just have really shallow roots, or are the ones on the floating islands dead trees whose roots have broken loose? Apparently, floating islands start out as reeds, cattails, and other plants that normally grow on the edges of water. As they grow farther and farther out into the water, less and less of the roots are in the actual soil, making them more easily detached by a storm. Dead material builds up between the plants, sitting on top of or just under the water and rotting there, eventually providing a rooting place for more plants. It sounds like the tamarack trees eventually grow on top of this mass–which, in the case of the giant one above, can be 30 feet deep in some places! They do tend to have shallow roots, since they grow in swamps, so it seems that you could have living trees rooted into a floating island. They are also a deciduous tree–they have needles, but they turn golden and drop their needles in the fall–so they would definitely contribute to leaf litter and increase the size of their host island!
And, by the way, floating islands, since they are made up of water-filtering swamp plants, can be very helpful in cleaning lake water, as in this article from Conservation Minnesota.
As I mentioned in my post on In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien, the author does eventually reveal what actually happened to Cathryn and her lover, and, like Isobel, I was somewhat disappointed by the reveal–not so much in the facts themselves as in the loss of the romanticized version. Stonich does a wonderful job showing Isobel’s reluctance to open the envelope from her son containing the reveal. In the end, though, perhaps this is a way for Stonich to minimize the all-too-common romanticizing of depression–bursting that bubble while still (ironically) giving Cathryn and Jack the same end.
Overall, These Granite Islands by Sarah Stonich was a wonderful addition to our reading list for Minnesota! (And I didn’t even get around to mentioning the title granite or the mining, both of which play minor roles in the story but are important aspects of the setting. Stay tuned…)