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Culture clash at the edge of the world Aug 8, 2004
Gatreau's novel is a tale of the loss of identity of the racially dispossessed, the nature of loss and a woman's journey toward her authentic self, all set against a dramatic background on the coast of Maine. On Alabaster Island the ocean may appear quite placid, but without warning a storm can transform the blue horizon into icy cliffs, all but obscuring the surrounding islands.
The heart of the novel rests with Freddy Orcutt, who, having lost his wife in the last few years, ruminates on the premature death of his son in a storm off Snagged Anchor Island and how this tragic event affected the remaining years of his marriage. His face lined and weather-beaten by years at sea as a fisherman, Freddy is rarely given to conversation, reminded daily of his loss by the presence of the adjoining cabin where his son and family lived.
Too emotionally invested to sell Jimmy's place, Freddy at last works up the courage to rent the cottage. The new occupant, Caitlin Gray, is delighted with the stark view of the islands, in search of inner peace after her husband's suspected infidelity and the resurfacing dream of success as a writer. Caitlin has fond memories of her visit to Alabaster Island seventeen years ago, when she was engaged in a passionate summer affair and now hopes the isolation and harsh beauty of the environment will inspire her long dormant talent.
Caitlin gives Freddy a wide berth at first, respecting his privacy and her own, until they are drawn together in the dawn of early morning, where they share quiet moments and occasional histories. Although she has a husband and two grown children, Caitlin develops an unexpected fondness for the stolid old man, a father figure that she has never known.
Most of the island's revenue is from summer tourists and the island is quiet during the harsh winter months, filled with the usual assortment of eccentric characters. However, one woman, O'zalik Moseley, married to a local man, is a threat to the status quo of island life. As the only American Indian on the Island, the Passamaquoddy tribe, O'zalik is obsessed with locating the reputed ancient burial ground on Snagged Anchor Island. Recently in possession of a journal that may authenticate the claim, O'zalik is determined to have the memory of her ancestors preserved and acknowledged.
This small island population comes to grief over the next few months, as long-buried secrets are revisited and one way of life clashes with another, commerce vs. historical preservation. Also revisited is the unexplained disappearance of a young woman who has never been accounted for, part of the island's mysterious past. True to their characters, the citizens of Alabaster Island deal with their challenges in determined New England fashion.
Never an effusive bunch, Freddy and his cronies accept life on life's terms, but when it is merited, step in to right the situation. But Caitlin Gray brings a breath of freshness to Freddy's stolid acceptance of his future, allowing his old heart to expand and embrace the coming years. Neither town nor inhabitants are ever very exciting, but move at nature's pace; at the end of the land mass, their days are reflective of the slower evolution of the physical world. Gatreau perfectly captures this struggle with the elements as a way of life, the fury and the bounty of the ocean and the tough, basically good-hearted folk who understand life at its most basic, New England core. Luan Gaines/2004.