A fictionalized account of 19th-century Scotsman Neil MacKenzie as he and his wife convert the natives of St. Kilda.
In many ways this is the proverbial story of colonization—an earnest, naïve minister is sent to a distant shore to save souls and promote the Empire’s notion of modernity. What makes MacKenzie’s story so singular is that St. Kilda is located no more than 40 miles off the coast of Scotland, inhabited for 1,000 years by Gaelic-speaking Norsemen. When MacKenzie and his young wife Lizzie arrive in the summer of 1830, though they are to live in the newly constructed manse, they are shocked by the primitive conditions of the islanders. Shod in rags and island wool, the St. Kildans live in turf huts (in which every kind of waste is layered into the floor during winter) and only one in three children survive past their first week. The tax man (the island belongs to a laird on the mainland) comes a few times per year to collect his revenue in feathers and drop off supplies, but generally the islanders live in isolation. MacKenzie begins by drilling the catechism and in true British fashion comes up with a scheme to improve island productivity. As Neil is occupied with the St. Kildans, Lizzie lives in a solitude more profound than the islanders. Unlike her husband she speaks no Gaelic, and so must wait years for company when finally a maid is sent from the mainland. As the years progress Neil and Lizzie, devoted as newlyweds, fall into an icy truce. Before a kind of desperate madness transforms Neil into that familiar Kurtz-like figure, he manages to rebuild the village and divide the shared farmland. For the communal St. Kildans, whose interdependence is vital, this new scheme of individuality has dire consequences.
In this winning debut, Altenberg, a trained archaeologist, brings a subtle voice to this odd bit of history, in which faith and marriage are no match for isolation.