My grandmother bought her first island in 1952. It was eight acres in the shape of a meaty drumstick, a hunk of sunbaked granite off the eastern shore of the Georgian Bay, in southern Ontario. The island was strewn with juniper and blueberry, along with a few magisterial white pines, each extruding from the nearly soilless surface like a frilled sandwich pick from a crusty loaf. At its highest point was an outcrop of smooth, pink rock—a viewsome site for a cottage. Fifty feet below lay a natural harbor. At a comfortable swimming distance from shore were three shoals, strategically arranged like a hedgerow, as if to demarcate the property line. My grandmother, the wife of a Cleveland investment banker, named the island Tyrone, after the county in Northern Ireland where her father had been born. She paid the Province of Ontario $1,800 for it, a transaction belying the strong probability that no government official—and likely no more than a handful of human beings ever—had set foot on it.
Land on the Georgian Bay was plentiful and cheap. Pleasure boats were slow, and most of the islands—there are more than 30,000 scattered along 150 miles of coast—were inconveniently far from shops and people. Living conditions—no electricity, no telephone, rudimentary plumbing—approximated camping. Winters were out of the question. Mainly people came out for a few weeks in the summer to fish—walleye, pike, and pickerel. The Canadian government, eager for cottagers and cash, set land prices low, happy to overlook nineteenth-century treaties awarding the islands to the native tribes that had paddled the bay for centuries.
In this respect, my grandmother’s island, like those of other white cottagers, was ill-gotten gain. In 1957, she bought two more, for $500 each, a pair so small and close together that they were sold as a set. By 1980, she owned six, all within a mile of one another. She could see them from her living room on Tyrone. Her islands provided protection: When you are lord of your dominion, you don’t want someone else’s castle marring your view. But there were also her four children, now grown, to consider; my grandmother possessed enough islands for them each to have one. (The little island pair, joined by a pretty wooden bridge, counted as a single property.) By this time, my grandfather had died, but he had approved her plan. The islands would be their legacy. Surrounded by water so clean you could drink it straight, my grandparents’ children and their families would command their own island fiefdoms, spending their summers together apart or apart together, depending on your point of view.
What my grandmother envisioned eventually came to pass. My siblings and I grew up on a quiet street in a college town in a landlocked midwestern state, dreaming of the island we visited for a few weeks each summer, the island that was ours alone. During the fall and winter, the island loomed in our thoughts, majestic and remote, until by spring, embellished by so much yearning, it had become a place of unimaginable splendor.
No man is an island, which is why the prospect of having one all to oneself can seem the ultimate luxury, a promise of transcendence. “Strange, the desire for an island of one’s own!” Agatha Christie wrote during a train trip along the Turkish coast that included tantalizing glimpses of islands in the Sea of Marmara. “Most people suffer from it sooner or later. It symbolizes in one’s mind liberty, solitude, freedom from all cares.” But Christie also suspected that the truth was more complicated. “Yet, actually,” she added, “I suppose [an island] would mean not liberty but imprisonment.”
Paradise or hell? Bastion of liberty or prison? Stranded alone on his island, Robinson Crusoe makes a list, weighing “the Comforts I enjoy’d, against the Miseries I suffer’d,” only to discover that the items under “good” cancel out those under “evil.” Crusoe’s creator, Daniel Defoe, was equally undecided about the fate he’d inflicted on his hero. “Sometimes I have wonder’d how it could be supported,” he reflected after his novel was published. “Sometimes I have as much wonder’d, why it should be any Grievance or Affliction… It seems to me, that Life in general is, or ought to be, but one universal Act of Solitude.”
Islands are conducive to fantasies of how life ought to be. Plato’s Atlantis, Euhemerus’s Panchaea, Bacon’s Bensalem, Huxley’s Pala, Houellebecq’s Lanzarote: Visions of a new social order differ in their particulars, and in the degree of wonder or revulsion they evoke, but they have in common a distinctive maritime topography. The shape of idealism is an island.
In Sir Thomas More’s telling, Utopia was not initially an island. But the first act of Utopus, its founding king, was to set his soldiers to work alongside the country’s inhabitants, digging a canal that would cut off the land from the rest of the continent. How better to protect his kingdom’s beneficent communalism from ordinary human society?
Bounded by water, inaccessible by foot, an island is not of our world. Or, rather, it’s our world without us in it. An island is nature’s petri dish: a controlled experiment in competition and adaptation. But we can’t help trying to play God, manipulating the variables to our liking. And there’s the rub: Once overrun by people and their stuff, connected to mainland by bridges, boats, airwaves, and Wi-Fi, an island is no longer an island but instead just another place on the map.
No sooner do the King of Naples and his entourage wash up on Prospero’s island, than Gonzalo, the king’s counselor, begins declaiming the utopia he would establish there:
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too—but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty –
All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavor. Treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth
Of its own kind of foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
Of course, the running joke in The Tempest has to do with how far Gonzalo’s idyll—which Shakespeare cribbed nearly word for word from an essay by Montaigne in praise of New World “cannibals”—departs from reality. Caliban, the island’s indigenous resident, is a conniving would-be rapist enslaved by a demanding master, and the island itself, now populated by a ship’s worth of drunken men, is rife with felonious plotting, swords, and booze. Only Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, is delighted by the shipwreck’s human specimens, the first, apart from her father, of her acquaintance: “How beauteous mankind is! O, Brave new world that hath such people in’t!”
Shakespeare played Miranda’s naïveté for laughs. Aldous Huxley saw horror in her words. Brave New World, published in 1932, showed what could happen when humans take over the island, when they wrest control from nature. In Huxley’s novel, an allegory of fascism and eugenics so dark it’s cartoonish, everyone’s a Caliban, engineered for slavery from birth. Huxley himself was determined that the book not be his last word on the future. By 1939, he was already envisioning a postscript: “a kind of Brave New World describing a society better than the present, not worse.” When, more than twenty years later, that book finally appeared, he called it—what else?—Island.
Pala, the island of Island, is the obverse of Brave New World’s coolly rational, Fordist England: It’s a trippy, tropical Shangri-la, with mango trees, blue butterflies, and half-naked children, a place where the adults are free to do more or less what they please, including not much at all. But even Huxley can’t conceive of Pala as more than a fleeting dream. While the Palanese bliss out on tantric Buddhism and a local hallucinogen called moksha, a greedy overlord on a neighboring island plots to seize their oil reserves. As the book ends, the overlord is invading Pala with his army. His ambassador supplies an epitaph: “So long as it remains out of touch with the rest of the world, an ideal society can be a viable society.” The same is true of islands.
“Dreaming of islands—whether with joy or in fear, it doesn’t matter—is dreaming of pulling away, of being already separate, far from any continent, of being lost and alone,” wrote the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. “Or it is dreaming of starting from scratch, recreating, beginning anew.” Daniel Defoe seems to have had both dreams at once. It’s generally agreed that the English novel began only in 1719, when Defoe deposited Crusoe on a rock in the Caribbean. It’s as though it took removing man to an island to hear him think. In doing so, Defoe turned conscious experience into a subject for narrative. Robinson Crusoe, wrote the great scholar Ian Watt, was to the novel what Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” was to philosophy, “as defiant an assertion of the primacy of individual experience.”
By the end of the nineteenth century, the book had spawned more than 700 editions, translations, and imitations, as well as an opera by Offenbach. “The only instance of an universally popular book that could make no one laugh and could make no one cry,” grumbled Charles Dickens, no fan of Defoe’s artless realism. Virginia Woolf, by contrast a passionate admirer, conceded that “We read; and we are rudely contradicted on every page. There are no sunsets and no sunrises; there is no solitude and no soul. There is, on the contrary, staring us full in the face nothing but a large earthenware pot.” Deleuze was blunt: “One can hardly imagine a more boring novel, and it is sad to see children still reading it today,” he wrote in 1953.
To susceptible readers, the wonder of the book lies in its prodigious mundanity, its content suggesting nothing less than a transcription of the soundtrack of existence itself. Crusoe’s ruminations—“I am cast upon a horrible desolate Island, void of all Hope of Recovery”—are continually interrupted by the banal demands of survival, by the need for an earthenware pot. “So I went to work,” he declares matter-of-factly. Within a few years and about fifty pages, he has mastered agriculture, basket weaving, bread baking, pottery, carpentry, sewing, and canoe making, all with a meticulously catalogued inventiveness. According to a footnote in my edition, Crusoe’s collapsible goatskin parasol, a success on his fourth try, predated the introduction of umbrellas to England by three decades. In his unceasing activity, Crusoe is fiercely, inexorably alive, his every thought and action a rebuke to a world that cannot see or hear him, one that, if it thinks of him at all, presumes him long dead.
Like his hero, Defoe was a jack-of-all-trades. An outspoken Dissenter who did time for his religious beliefs in Newgate—itself a kind of desert island—he worked as a hosier, tile maker, wine importer, horse dealer, oyster farmer, perfumer, linen trader, pamphleteer, and spy before turning, at the age of fifty-nine, to fiction. As Watt points out, only a society such as Defoe’s own, well advanced in the division of labor, could find the minutiae of Crusoe’s chores as engrossing as Crusoe himself does: “ ’Tis a little wonderful, and what I believe few People have thought much upon, (viz.) the strange multitude of little Things necessary in the Providing, Producing, Curing, Dressing, Making and Finishing this one Article of Bread,” he rhapsodizes about his newfound skill as a baker.
Karl Marx saw Robinson Crusoe as an allegory of unalienated labor—socialism on an individual scale. Watt saw the novel as a parable about the moral value of work. The castaway’s never-ending toil is both obligatory and redemptive: “Crusoe, in fact, has been stranded in the utopia of the Protestant Ethic.”
I knew just what he meant. Our island—the island bestowed on my father, my grandmother’s youngest son—came with a literary name: Treasure Island. But life there more often called to mind Defoe’s novel. Our island was crescent shaped and bewitchingly feral, with a densely wooded interior, a rocky shore, and, on the leeward side, at the mouth of a sheltered harbor, a beach of coarse gray sand. Unlike the other Eakin islands, Treasure had already changed hands a few times when my family acquired it. In 1911, it had been bought by George Hodgetts, a Toronto bank manager, who built a cottage “out front,” on the windward side, which featured a sloping expanse of metamorphic rock, the ribbons of black and pink so hot on a sunny day they burned your feet. It also offered a magnificent view of open water. (So-called “outer islands,” with views not of other islands and cottages but only of water, were particularly prized: They permitted the illusion of private dominion to extend all the way to the horizon.)
Soon after it was built, Hodgetts’s house blew down. He rebuilt it where it fell, in a grove of oak and maple overlooking the harbor. For decades, it remained a gloomy place—hardly more habitable than the crude log stockade on Treasure Island’s fictional counterpart. Hodgetts had done the construction himself; windows, along with plumb lines, had not been a priority. The rooms were dark and damp, the ceilings low, the thin walls haphazardly joined. The fireplace smoked, the roof leaked. Heating water was a multistep process involving a copper kettle, a hand pump outside the back door, and a cast-iron stove in the kitchen that required a constant supply of wood.
Festooning the rafters in the living room were the skins of snakes killed by Hodgetts’s son, an avid picnicker, who inherited the island from his parents. Each skin had been tacked, one to a beam, in an undulating pattern, and a date, location, and length had been carved in the wood (“Ruby Island, 1930, 6 ft. 3”). By the time my parents arrived, in 1970, two toddlers and an infant in tow, these picnic-safari trophies had been taken down and burned. But their outlines were still visible, and the room’s Havisham-like creepiness remained. Hodgetts’s son and his wife had no children, and it was easy to picture the two of them seated around their smoky hearth in the glow of a kerosene lamp, under rows of decaying snakeskin streamers.
By the 1970s, even outer-island cottages had septic tanks and indoor plumbing. But Hodgetts’s outhouse, a pungent closet in the woods, was unusually (for him) solid and, to my siblings’ and my dismay, judged likely to last many more years. Still, my parents made improvements. A neighbor who briefly owned the island before my grandmother bought it, had installed a gas-fueled pump by the shore, along with a waterline that ran from the harbor to the kitchen sink. My parents added a propane hot-water heater and punched a skylight in the kitchen ceiling.
The kitchen is where my mother spent much of her time that first summer, under a line of cloth diapers strung up to dry in the heat of the cast-iron stove. It was cold and rainy and fierce with mosquitoes; spending the day outdoors—integral to the fantasy of island life—was frequently not an option. My father, an English professor, was writing the book on Henry James that would earn him tenure. Each morning after breakfast, he set out in a wooden outboard for Tyrone, to a one-room “study” on the back of the island. My mother, halfway through her own doctorate, on Romantic poetry, remained behind, washing dishes in a roasting pan, patching screens, painting shutters, and taking care of us.
My parents had met at Harvard, two middle-class midwesterners fulfilling a culturally ingrained imperative: moral and intellectual self-betterment through higher education. Now they were pulling nails out of rotten floorboards with a rusting Yankee nail puller they had found in Hodgetts’s boathouse. Back home in the Midwest that winter, my grandmother gave my mother a brace and bit for Christmas. My father enrolled in a class on small-engine repair at the local high school. He asked so many questions about gaskets and flanges and carburetor throttle plates that the instructor eventually suggested he try another class, “geared to women,” that included explanations of “how things worked.”
After my father got tenure, in 1972, his trips to the Tyrone study became less frequent; there was too much to do on Treasure Island. My parents tore down some of Hodgetts’s flimsy walls and erected durable new ones. They built a dock, a catwalk, a composting toilet and a gray-water pit, a double-height screened porch, as well as a wood-plank washroom with a sink and a shower that they installed themselves. They chopped wood, pruned trees, and, with the help of Hodgetts’s block and tackle and a coil of eighty-year-old hemp rope, lugged boulders out of paths. Even our swims were work: We’d bring our soapy laundry in with us, paddling it around the harbor until the suds were gone. My mother taught herself to use a glass cutter and hung three new windows in the dining room. When Hodgetts’s old boathouse collapsed during a storm, she fashioned a double bed out of the flotsam that washed ashore. Sturdy, silvered, hand-hewn—one post still had an iron dock ring in it—her driftwood bed had the rough beauty of a living thing, like Odysseus’s olive-tree bed at Ithaca. It filled my parents’ garret room.
Imperceptibly at first, Treasure Island had wrought a transformation: Literary scholars by training, my parents had become makers, forsaking the world of books for that of manual labor. No longer readers of Robinson Crusoe, they inhabited its pages. This change, like Crusoe’s own, was in part a product of circumstance. Few contractors and handymen serviced the bay, and those who did worked island jobs only during the summer season, before the weather turned cold and the water froze. You could wait years to have a cottage built or a dock repaired, and then only at great expense. Frugality was built into my parents’ DNA. They were raising a family of five—soon to be six—on my father’s salary of less than $20,000 a year.
But for my parents, doing the work themselves had become a point of pride: an island compelled self-sufficiency. Assembling a bed out of foraged materials displayed resourcefulness; buying one in Toronto and ferrying it out by boat suggested a lack not just of imagination but of character. “I gain’d a different Knowledge from what I had before,” Crusoe says in his fourth year as a castaway, newly pious and self-reliant. “I look’d now upon the World as a Thing remote, which I had nothing to do with, no Expectation from, and indeed no Desires about.”
Soon the only sign on Treasure Island of my parents’ shared vocation was a framed print on a dining-room wall of this verse from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
Weaving spiders, come not here;
Hence, you long-legg’d spinners, hence!
Beetles black, approach not near;
Worm nor snail, do no offence.
It was a beautiful spell but ineffective. Outside, the dock spiders dangling from the pine boughs gave the trees a festive, tinseled look. Inside, the same spiders lurked on window- sills and in floorboard cracks, disconcertingly large and fierce. A teenage guest, visiting with his parents for a week, slept with a shoe in his hand, to fend off the wood roaches that dropped from the walls at night. Bats crept in through holes in the roof and couldn’t get back out. Raccoons pushed through the screen doors onto the porch. My mother kept a pair of tongs at hand for grabbing the fox snakes that appeared on the kitchen floor. A squirrel nested in the mantel. Mice nested in everything—the silverware drawer, a mattress pad, the back of the boat. One night, retrieving a glass of water from the kitchen, I found a mouse running laps inside a pan of brownies encased in Saran Wrap. We stared at each other in mutual horror through the transparent plastic, and then I went back to bed.
One summer, my parents were awakened by a sound like water dripping. It turned out to be a colony of carpenter ants lustily pulping the two-by-fours that held up the second story. Getting rid of the ants meant injecting each crevice with chlordane—a potent pesticide, now banned—and leaving the house for hours. We’d come back to find the floors littered with tiny black corpses. My parents kept a chunk of ant-eaten beam as a souvenir. Its insides had been chewed away, leaving curling tendrils of wood so delicate that it had the appearance of fine carving.
“The most desolate island cannot retain its natural order,” Watt writes. “Wherever the white man brings his rational technology there can only be manmade order, and the jungle itself must succumb to the irresistible teleology of capitalism.” That may have been the message of Defoe’s story, but it wasn’t quite true of ours. The chewed beam was a pointed reminder: On Treasure Island, nature remained in charge. Before long, the ants were back.
Elsewhere, it wasn’t like this. By 1989, electric cable, laid on the bottom of the Bay, extended to the outer islands. Land prices went up. Wealthy Toronto residents could acquire an island within three hours drive of the city, stock it with the amenities they had at home—microwaves, toasters, washing machines, wine coolers, jacuzzis—and never lay eyes on a snake.
We passed some of those islands on the forty-minute boat trip to town. They were dense with cottages and outbuildings, wooden walkways and flower pots, deck chairs and sun umbrellas, idle sailboats, seaplanes—the conspicuous plumage of human beings at rest. The cottages perched high on bare rock, in defiance of weather, wanting to see and be seen. One shot up on a point within swimming distance of Treasure Island. From our harbor, we could see through the picture window in the living room to an enormous television that seemed always to be on. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, a trio of businessmen pooled their money to buy a “play” island. They razed its few trees and installed a volleyball court, kitesurfing equipment, and, implausibly, a lawn. It was rumored that they had the lichen scrubbed off the rocks with bleach.
“Humans can live on an island only by forgetting what an island represents,” writes Deleuze. “Islands are either from before or for after humankind.”
In the summer of 1989, we arrived to find a yellow Bell Telephone stake planted on the shore, in a patch of poison ivy. We decided to get a phone. My grandmother was in her eighties then, alone on her island for days at a time; telephones were a concession to the possibility of emergency. Otherwise, little changed. We had acquired a reputation for being old-fashioned, a little strange. Our cottage was jerry-rigged, austerely rustic. We still had propane lights and an active outhouse. But the greatest difference between us and our neighbors was how we spent our days. Other people came to their islands to relax. We were there to work, our days unfolding like those of Benjamin Franklin, icon of Protestant industriousness: an early rising, a bracing dip, oatmeal and coffee, the same question hovering over our breakfast table as had over his—“What good shall I do today?”
It was common to find my father on his back on the kitchen floor, a headlamp strapped to his forehead, an arm halfway under the propane fridge, fiddling with its fickle pilot light. Or my mother on the deck in a cloud of sawdust, plunging a circular saw through a set of old dock boards in the process of being turned into kitchen shelves, window shutters, a step stool, or some other useful thing. (Other people kept deck chairs on their decks; we kept a generator.) A neighbor might drop by at half past two, astonished to find us just sitting down to lunch—the bread, of course, homemade—our morning prolonged by pressing chores.
The amount of work never lessened. For every rotten dock board we replaced, another would crack or wiggle loose. Every few years, the whole dock—or a screen door, or a bit of roof or siding—would go, wrecked by a beaver or a bear or a savage storm. These events we took in stride. It wouldn’t be too much to say that unconsciously we welcomed them. The wildness was what we prized about Treasure Island, what we instinctively knew to be a rare and fragile thing, all too easily destroyed. If our island was also our opponent, busily undoing our efforts to impose on it an order of our own, this was how we needed life there to be. Our labors might appear self-defeating or perverse, but they were also something else: the exertions of virtue. For the Puritans, writes Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism, labor became an end in itself, a defense against temptation, a proof of worthiness sanctioned by God. Long after Puritanism, and even God, had left the picture, the ethic of work remained.
My parents are in their seventies now, but their pace has hardly slackened. A few years ago, in a stark break with tradition, they bought a sofa for Treasure Island, a “rustic cottage” model, as stiff-backed and firm as a Puritan minister, with broad wooden paddles for arms. (They also installed a solar panel, my mother doing much of the wiring herself, so she could read the Times on a laptop each morning.) The sofa was deemed a success, and my father recently proposed buying a second, just like it. My mother said she had no opinion on the matter, as she had yet to sit on the first—she didn’t have time.