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Life on a Very Small Island

by Linda Greenlaw

Pub Date: July 10th, 2002
ISBN: 0-7868-6677-2
Publisher: Hyperion

Greenlaw, who chronicled life as captain of a swordfish boat in The Hungry Ocean (1999), here describes her new work: lobstering on the tiny Maine island where her family lives.

Isle Au Haut in Penobscot Bay has fewer than 50 permanent residents, half of them relatives of the author. As skipper of the Mattie Belle, Greenlaw waits season after season for salable crustaceans after setting 500 traps, putting out herring for bait, and watching factory-boat interlopers cruise by without so much as a wave. Our captain provides lots of lobster lore and a stark evocation of the ocean’s ever-present cruelty, including a discussion of hypothermia and death at sea. (Not many of the island’s dozen or so commercial fishermen see the point of learning to swim in the North Atlantic.) Along with matters nautical, Greenlaw describes Isle Au Haut’s anthropology, ethnography, and ethos, delineating the complex genealogy and traditions that bind the islanders. It’s a nice narrative of one year in community relationships: life with Mom (who falls ill) and Dad (Linda’s sole crew member), crazy Rita and the gal who bares her boobs, the sweet preacher and the B&B proprietors. We see small-town civics in action when the Lighthouse Committee runs into trouble and the debate about waging gear war against invading mainland boats runs out of gas. Life on an island has its hardships (no Starbucks!), and Greenlaw is frequently lonely—but more frequently quite self-sufficient. Despite the occasional wayward personal pronoun or misidentification of a biblical character, her writing is clear and sharp. Anecdotes about encounters at the boatyard or general store recall a quieter, less crowded America that now seems rare indeed.

Straightforward storytelling and captivating reading: satisfying as a Maine lobster dinner.