Weighing in… a review of three books about Sable Island,
by Henry James.
A Dune Adrift. The Strange Origins and Curious History of Sable Island. Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle (McClelland and Stewart, 2004)
Sable Island Shipwrecks. Disaster and Survival at the North Atlantic Graveyard Lyall Campbell (Nimbus, 1994)
Sable Island. Nova Scotia's Mysterious Island of Sand. Bruce Armstrong (Doubleday, 1981)
Marq de Villiers won the Governor General's Award for non-fiction for an earlier work in 1999, and so one could reasonably look forward to reading A Dune Adrift, his new book about Sable Island. But no, this one turns out to be just a pot-boiler. A Dune Adrift consists of a loosely connected assemblage of essays, some of them going over material, which has already been worked to death by previous writers. Who discovered Sable? Nobody knows. How did it get there? Nobody knows. Then there are several chapters largely concerned with the movement of wind and water, but these give little insight into why these movements should be more violent, or more unpredictable around Sable, if indeed they are, than, say, on parts of the Grand Banks. There is a chapter almost entirely concerned with rainfall and water supply, curiously entitled "Its Curious Ecosystem", and another, somewhat eclectic one, about the fauna, going all the way, with many gaps, from freshwater sponges in the island's lakes, through the inevitable horses, to some squid and coral which inhabit The Gully, a submarine canyon which lies (irrelevantly enough) some 60 km to the ESE of Sable. Finally, there is some talk about the Sable Island Humane Establishment, the lifesaving stations - quite different from the authoritative account by Lyall Campbell but still interesting reading. There is no single chapter devoted to the shipwrecks - the chapter entitled Its Serial Shipwrecks mentions only one, and then quite briefly - but there are many references to others, often without any detail, scattered throughout the book.
The main fault with A Dune Adrift is that it gives the reader a very false impression of what Sable is like. The book is replete with references to "savage storms", "deadly winters" and the like, but de Villiers provides no evidence to show that Sable Island is any worse a place to be than the North Shore of Nova Scotia. Rather, as Bruce Armstrong says in his Sable Island: "For some who visit Sable, the experience begins a love affair which lasts for life...For them, the island was a paradise." de Villiers' book contains no photographs, but the addition of these, small enough to get onto a page, would scarcely have served to moderate the melancholy view that he presents. One needs a large camera and very large contact prints to convey the clarity of the light, the vast expanses and the solitude of Sable. For these one has to go to Thaddeus Holownia’s wonderful photographs of Sable (Mt. Allison University) or, perhaps, Roger Savage's watercolours (Liverpool, N.S.)
There is, I think, more than one reason for de Villiers' dismal picture of the place. The first is that he pays scant attention to the fact that Sable can be, above all, a foggy, not a stormy place. "Thick as milk", as one sailor described it. Obviously many of the wrecks were caused by bad storms, but de Villiers seems to be unaware of the fact, for instance, that at least 13 of the 23 wrecks described in sufficient detail by Campbell occurred in dense fog, while only 5 occurred during gales or heavy weather with no mention of fog or blizzard. This makes it seem likely that a majority of the wrecks were due to navigational errors - to the currents offshore and the inevitable inaccuracy of dead reckoning when sun and stars are obscured. Another possible reason is that, despite some oblique references in his text to the contrary, de Villiers may never have set foot on the island. His co-author, Sheila Hirtle, apparently did spend a few days there one October.
Unless you happen to be mainly interested in the history of the life saving stations on Sable, which Campbell describes in meticulous detail, Armstrong’s book is by far the best of the three. Most of his Sable Island consists of a well-written, straightforward account of the history and folklore of Sable, but towards the end Armstrong, who is a magician by trade, turns lyrical. It is there that he comes as close as, perhaps, anyone can to describing in words the sense of boundless mental "space" and solitude that possesses one out there.
Review by Henry James, March 2006. Northumberland Tide, Volume 1, No.1, page 13.
Published by Northumberland Media Co-op, Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia.