Bertin, J. 2006. Sable Island: Tales of Tragedy and Survival from the Graveyard of the Atlantic. True Canadian Amazing Stories. Altitude Publishing Canada Ltd. 144 pages.

Book Review by Lyall Campbell

Johanna Bertin’s book Sable Island is subtitled “Tales of Tragedy and Survival from the Graveyard of the Atlantic”. It belongs to a nonfictions series called Amazing Stories. The book covers the whole sweep of Sable history in some 140 pages. These facts give a good idea what to expect. The text will be aimed at the general reader. It will be based largely on material in print, the work of other authors. For the most part, original sources will be ignored.

Any person who has read much about Sable Island would hardly turn to this book for new insights. Even a certain scepticism might be justified. The author may be inclined to not let the facts get in the way of a good story. From the available material, she may select the most lurid, not the most seminal points. In presenting her “tales”, she may give free rein to speculation. (More on this later.)

The main structure of Bertin's book is a series of vignettes in short chapters. Each focuses on one person in describing incidents in the Sable story. Bertin’s selection spans known Sable history from the earliest times to the latter 20th century. An epilogue gives a brief mention of Sable’s present status. The well-chosen episodes follow a chronological pattern used by previous writers. The creative aspect of Bertin’s work shows in two ways. Each account is clearly written, and the transitions from chapter to chapter are smooth. These features make for quick, easy reading. The style suits a school or public library collection. But there is a downside.

Here we come back to the role of speculation in creative non-fiction. No historical writing can be confined to fact. (And if it could, nobody would want to read it.) A reader wants to know what an author thinks about the evidence that research turns up. Proper speculation is fuelled by intuition, experience, and immersion in the subject. It is based on solid evidence enlarged by a wider knowledge. Where original research is absent, the sources must be the work of other authors. A serious writer follows the most reliable author in a given field. Bertin has not always done so.

Enjoyment of fiction is said to demand a willing suspension of disbelief. For nonfiction, a similar trust must be put in a writer’s authority. A reader must be able to take as valid what an author states as fact. A writer’s own views or opinions about facts should be clearly signalled. Too much prose about Sable fails to respect this principle. The flaw has spawned much misinformation. Unfortunately Bertin continues the trend. Another source of error is changes through time. For example, in dramatizing past events, an author will describe Sable Island. But the picture will be based on Sable today. The real Sable of, say, 1600, was quite different in some vital respects. Partly because of this time factor, Bertin’s chapters about events before 1800 are the weakest. She has repeated errors that have become truisms to Sable writers and, sadly, their readers. Her own speculations not flagged as opinion have added new mistakes. Examples of serious untruths include the following:

Not one of these ‘facts’ is valid, i.e. verified by authentic evidence.

This book, as a package, is aptly tailored to its target audience. The lack of footnotes and index are not great flaws in such a brief work aimed at non-scholars. The simple virtues of the writing are enhanced by production features. The typeface is fairly large, and well spaced. And it is dark enough to be easy on the eyes, not the grey smudges of so many books by today’s larger publishers. The few, (black and white) illustrations are clear and suited to the text. As a whole this book provides a satisfying introduction to Sable for the general reader. It captures the spirit of the island’s past without sensationalism. And despite the errors (which often derive from the author’s chosen sources) it gives a good idea of Sable’s role in larger history. Readers new to Sable may be surprised to learn of the impact of this tiny spot in the ocean off Canada’s east coast.

Lyall Campbell
Prepared for the Sable Island Green Horse Society
© December 2006