As authors from James Fenimore Cooper through Mark Twain knew well, the frontier experience shaped our American consciousness.
On the shifting border between civilization and wilderness, such writers explored themes of self-reliance, man's struggle to fashion order out of chaos, confrontation with the Other and violence. Twentieth-century authors including William Faulkner ("Light in August") and Joseph Conrad (the extra-territorial "Heart of Darkness") remained fascinated with this rich literary terrain. Willa Cather wrote nostalgically of the hardships endured by settlers of the Midwest. John Steinbeck, in "The Grapes of Wrath," chronicled the lives of farm workers seeking, and failing to find, salvation in the promised land that always lay a little farther west.
Sometimes such novels dwell on the effects of isolation or on the difficulty of wresting sustenance from the earth. In such stories the landscape itself -- the parched fields, wind and sea -- becomes a character as important as any human. The sounds of nature can overwhelm human voices -- breezes blowing, storms thundering, animals bleating, mewling, whooping, barking and squealing.
The acclaimed author T.C. Boyle has set his 13th novel on a fragment of land devoid of trees off the coast of California -- as far west as any place in the lower 48. Based in part on the memoirs of women who lived on San Miguel Island between 1888 and the mid-1940s, "San Miguel" tells the stories of three sets of characters, their dreams, entanglements and failures.
In the first section, the thoroughly Victorian Marantha stoically battles tuberculosis while her husband Will struggles to build a road. In their reduced world, far from politics, business and technology, small failures and even smaller achievements take on monumental emotional importance. A burnt cake or a leaky roof is a grievous misfortune. Marantha refrains from speaking directly about her feelings, even when frustrated, hurt or anxious -- except when she has sipped a bit too much whiskey. When she finally finds freedom, it is a bitter and debased liberation.
The second part focuses on Edith Waters, the daughter of Marantha and Will, a beautiful and manipulative aspiring actress. For her, as for her mother, San Miguel Island is a prison; but her story, unlike Marantha's, is one of hope and ultimately, triumph -- although her victory, too, is tainted. In more ways than one, Edith Waters is the central character of "San Miguel."
In the third and final story, Elise and Herbie Lester come to San Miguel years later, seeking freedom from what we would call, in today's parlance, the rat race. Unlike Edith and Marantha, Elise exults in the beauty of the locale and in the love she shares with her warm and caring -- but, shall we say, moody -- husband. For them, San Miguel is not a prison but a release.
Ironically, her jail turns out to be a small apartment onshore. I am not going to tell you how or why she goes there because I don't want to spoil this moving story.
Early in his career, T.C. Boyle published as T. Coraghessan Boyle. While "T.C." may sound more prosaic, the writing does not. He employs a lyrical style filled with evocative imagery and metaphor. He describes "the voice of a woman shrinking into the grip of her own skin." Will Waters' face hangs "like a swollen, pale fruit in the doorway." Edith's eyes are "a crazed flaring assault of cobalt blue." As a door closes, its hinges utter a "faint metallic sigh." From time to time, Mr. Boyle throws in an unusual word: "indited," "etiolated" and the onomatopoeic "susurrus."
In this fertile language he extracts cascades of detail from ordinary events such as getting out of a boat and riding up to a house, watching the mail arrive by sea, or trudging to the outhouse at night. Though never pretentious and rarely superfluous, literary references abound: to Shelley's "Ozymandias," Shakespeare's "Tempest," Bronte's "Wuthering Heights," Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," even Washington Irving's "Legend of Sleepy Hollow."
"San Miguel" is a historical novel although most of the action, at least in the first two-thirds, takes place far from the stage where major historical events play out. Mr. Boyle is painstakingly careful about details, from the way people think and act to how they dress, comb and pomade their hair.
Though they never take center stage, obscure and surprising historical facts emerge along the way. In the early part of the 20th century, Edith Waters cannot travel from Santa Barbara to San Francisco by rail, but only by boat. In 1942, a Japanese submarine attacks the California coast just north of Santa Barbara.
The plot feels episodic at times, but that is part of Mr. Boyle's point. Life is filled with events that, although unpredictable, sometimes turn out to be enormously consequential.
A cask of fine aged whiskey shows up in the sands, a relic from a shipwreck. The Navy sends soldiers to protect a small island -- young, immature men who will alter the family dynamic and cause a favored horse to go lame. Marantha Waters laments her ill-fortune. Herbie and Elise celebrate their "luck." The reader plunges forward, propelled not by an elaborately structured plot but by a sense of the importance and profundity of these ordinary lives.
"San Miguel" is a lyrical, intimate novel, filled with sadness and beauty.
Mitchell James Kaplan, a writer and translator, lives in Mt. Lebanon. His historical novel "By Fire, By Water" received the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Award Gold Medal for Historical Fiction. He is at work on a novel set in first-century Rome and Judea (mitchelljameskaplan.com).