T.C. Boyle goes island hopping from Anacapa, which provided the scene for his previous novel, When the Killing’s Done, to San Gabriel, the uppermost of the California Channel Islands.
San Miguel contains three stories all set on San Miguel Island in the space of about fifty years. San Miguel is not a vacation paradise. It is a wild, desolate location, bereft of trees and barely habitable. It has been used as for the raising of sheep according to one of the characters, Herbie Lester, since the 1600’s when the Spaniards ruled what became California. The first story in this novel centers on an ex-Civil War Captain named Will Waters and his wife, Marantha, from San Francisco. Marantha is extremely ill with what is described as “consumption.” Using Marantha’s money, the Captain has invested in a ranch on San Gabriel with a stock of about 4,000 sheep. Captain Waters lures Marantha and her daughter Edith away from the creature comforts of San Francisco to the island of San Miguel with the promise that the sea air will prove salubrious for Marantha’s illness. The first story is told from Marantha’s perspective and we learn from this that the privations of the island and the constant struggle for survival, far from restoring her health, have nearly killed her. Her condition worsens and the family is forced to evacuate. Back in Santa Barbara, Marantha dies and Edith rebels, but Captain Waters, who has inherited his wife’s interest in the ranch is determined to move back and rescue the enterprise from the desultory condition it has assumed under the replacement caretaker. He forces his step-daughter Edith to accompany him as what amounts to a galley slave. This leads us into the second part of the story, which is told from Edith’s perspective. Edith, who is Marantha’s adopted daughter, has visions of a career in the arts which is several light years removed from the day to day reality on San Miguel Island. From the beginning of her unfortunate reintroduction onto the island, she begins to plan her escape. Her options are extremely limited, focusing on a compliant, but unpromising ranch hand, Jimmy, a Spanish shearer and finally an itinerant boat owner who sails among the Channel Islands looking for anything salable back on the mainland. Edith affects her escape, returns to San Francisco and goes on to become a star under the name of Inez Deane.
In the third part, a World War I veteran, Herbie Lester, and his new bride, Elise, become the island’s caretakers for a decade from the mid 1930’s to the 40’s. The charismatic Herbie is a World War I vet and Elise (Elizabeth) is an ex-librarian from New York who had previously never been further west than the Hudson River. Herbie’s almost manic zeal augers well for the success , but it is Elise who provides the steady hand on the tiller that makes their life on the island almost idyllic. The flock is substantially smaller in the latter story but conditions have improved considerably. Travel time from the mainland to the island has been reduced (there is a Coast Guard cutter that makes regular visits and provides news of the outside world, mail, and provisions), the primitive sheepherders house has been updated (courtesy of Captain Waters) to a habitable abode, and the privations of the island are considerably ameliorated due to the diligence of both Mr. and Mrs. Lester. In the course of their tenure on the island their family increases two-fold, with the addition of two daughters, and the press latches onto the success story of the “Swiss Family Lester” against the backdrop of a world gone mad, in the throes of the Second World War.
Two out of three Reference Librarians agree that T.C. Boyle is a great author. And we both agree that San Miguel is one of the best novels by Boyle that we have read.
[In the next installment of this review we will consider some of the legerdemain that T.C. Boyle employs to make this book so magical.]