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Boyle’s ‘San Miguel’ runs aground in reality

Not liking “San Miguel” would be like kicking kittens. T.C. Boyle is one of contemporary American literature’s big guns, and “San Miguel” is a heartfelt, meticulous novel imagining the lives of three brave women on one of the least-known and most picturesque parts of the continental United States, during one of American history’s liveliest periods, from the 1880s to the end of World War II. Nevertheless, I’m punting a big-eyed little furball.

Articulating my difficulties here requires care. The novel is marketed as a “historical novel” — and there are two ways to consider that. One is in the genre sense, as in the “Romance,” “Historical Fiction,” “Self-Help” (etc.) categories targeting buyers. This “historical novel” makes the scenery and props and public events of some era the main course to engage a reader who wants to escape for a little while to Meiji Japan or Napoleonic Europe.

Another way to think of this is as descriptive of any novel using history as a frame (or as a spice, not the entrée) to get to other things, universal themes and subjects and complexities always present in being human. The issue here, possibly, is that “San Miguel” wants to be the latter but is hamstrung by its rooting in actual historical figures, and so comes closer to the former in some important ways.

San Miguel is an island 46 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara (where Boyle lives), in Southern California. It is today both a national park and an archaeological district on the National Register of Historic Places because of Paleolithic dwelling sites dating back 12,000 years. It’s a stark, fierce place with a wide array of sea life, including elephant seals and killer whales.

A few people lived on the island from about 1850 to 1948, as caretakers of sheep ranches (on government-leased land). The Walters and Lester families lived there, serially, with the latter becoming famous thanks to the 1930s rise of mass media such as radio and Life magazine and the country’s fascination with the “Swiss Family Lester” living close to nature and away from the Depression and fascism’s darkening European shadow. “San Miguel” is based on the real Walters and Lester families and so given the weight and power of historical reality. Fair enough.

“San Miguel” has three parts: “Marantha,” “Edith” and “Elise.” The first Edith Walters is Marantha’s adopted daughter. The first two sections take place in the 1880s. “Elise” involves Elise Lester and unfolds from 1932 to the mid-1940s.

“San Miguel” is really a rural pioneer story, moved from Nebraska to a sexier place. It documents the hardscrabble lives and sacrifices, and joys, of the people virtually marooned there, ordinary folks except for the choices that led them islandward – in Marantha’s case, her Civil War veteran husband who at 50 wanted to try for the main chance as a sheep farmer. Edith is forced to live on the island by her parents, then by her stepfather once her tubercular mother dies. And Elise follows the wishes of her probably bipolar husband Herbie, a wounded World War 1 veteran looking for peace and turning his back on the “botched civilization” (Ezra Pound) exposed by the Great War.

All are East Coasters unprepared for what is needed to survive on the island. However, they learn fast, to one degree or another. The artistic problem is, this essentially agrarian life is one of endless work of a mundane kind, small pleasures, and limited distractions. This is the fabric of the story. In each of the three sections there are sprinkled dramatic events to punctuate the equilibrium, but of necessity farm life is a disciplined daily ritual and that’s most of what happens. This life is meticulously rendered by Boyle. Cooking, cleaning, building, shearing, repairing. Looking at the ocean. There’s a lot of sand, mud, rain and cold. But also the ocean and a variety of momentary but epiphanic joys.

However, Marantha is miserable, and then she dies. Edith is miserable, and then she escapes the island and her abusive stepfather. Elise and Herbie carve out something strenuous but close to happiness, raising two daughters. However, their almost-idyl is undone by modernity and Herbie’s perhaps foreordained fate, and the novel ends with Elise and the girls leaving the island behind, bewildered and starting new lives, at sea on the mainland.

The reader may be left more with a feeling of a really good, contemporary museum exhibit or a piece of historiography. Perhaps this is unfair. What is true is that each character here is relentlessly conventional: that is to say certainly admirable and complicated, but to one degree or another predictable, and facing predictable issues.

And that leads to a certain anticlimactic tone to the overall arc of the narratives. This may be an effect of the story’s anchoring in real lives. Boyle honors their reality, but sometimes that’s not the best art.

The overall lowered temperature may also be an effect of the novel’s point of view – that of the women, and these certainly are rich vistas, but limited ones. The men’s lives are focused outside the house, and the women’s, inside it.

For example, Herbie in one of his manic phases decides to go after an orca in a rowboat with a rifle, pushing off from the beach at night in a storm and rowing so far out into the treacherous channel (a navigation nightmare because of the underwater topography) that Elise can no longer even see him, leaving her potentially alone on an island with two small children and 1,200 sheep. But then we fade to black and cut to the next scene: Herbie back home, next day, doing chores. It might have been interesting to know what it was like inside a manic vet’s head chasing a killer whale in a rowboat in the dark. But that’s not the agenda here. This novel is about place and “real life.”

Is it enough? With all due respect to this important author, look out, kitten.

San Miguel

By T.C. Boyle


367 pages, $27.95

Ed Taylor is a Buffalo freelance poet and critic