An expertly wrought memoir of journeys to islands real, metaphorical, and imagined.
Minnesota poet Holm (The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth, 1996) finds it significant that his name means “island” in Old Norse. As a withdrawn and bookish child, he had to make his own island of a patch of grass under a rare prairie tree; as a more outgoing adult, he has traveled to many islands, several of which—Madagascar, Molokai, and Iceland among them—he profiles in this tightly knit collection of travel essays. “Islands are necessary,” the author declares, “for us to be able to think about what is true at the bottom of our own character; we need to reduce the world for a while to count it and understand it.” One thing that is true, Holm insists (gainsaying John Donne), is that we are all, in fact, islands—a sentiment that he reinforces with a lonely memoir of a sojourn in the landlocked Chinese city of Wuhan, where he confronted the profound sense of exile that can unmoor the most intrepid traveler. “When you find yourself islanded, ‘retrospect’ is the cruelest non sequitur of all,” he writes of such moments. “Avoid it.” Mostly Holm is upbeat, however, and he celebrates the very real pleasures of spending time on little pockets of the world that are at a far remove from any other place. That does not mean, he adds, that islands, however remote, do not change. His beloved Iceland, on which he’d spent time as a teacher in the 1970s, was once a forgotten backwater; but on a return trip in 1999 he discovers that it has become a vibrant and utterly modern place that seems in many respects not so different from Copenhagen or Minneapolis. And, whereas Madagascar was once a lost world primeval, he notes that it has now been logged and farmed to splinters and clods.
Holm mixes keen you-are-there observations with profound bits of homespun philosophizing, and never once does he sound a false note. The result is a pleasure for islomanes, and for anyone who appreciates good writing.