Kitts, W. 2011. Sable Island, The Wandering Sandbar. Nimbus Publishing Limited, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 90 pages.
Review: With its pending addition to Canada’s National Parks system, the time couldn’t be better to launch a book that would introduce young readers to the history, diversity and beauty of Sable Island.
At first glance, Sable Island, The Wandering Sandbar by Wendy Kitts appears to be such a book. The Table of Contents promises a trip through time, from the origin of the Island (“The Wandering Sandbar”), through its fascinating history, its flora and fauna, and culminates in the Island’s present and future (“Sable Island Today”). The large print format is easy to read and its ninety pages are amply illustrated, although many of the photographs lack detail or are of poor quality.
The promise offered at first glance is, unfortunately, short-lived. Although Kitts mentions the island’s beauty and its “magical” nature, she seems to focus on death, danger and violence, and these themes permeate the book.
Beginning on page 1, with “…Where you have to be careful not only of the quicksand, but also of the sharks in the water…”, the ‘dangers’ of sharks, and quicksand (on Sable quicksand is more of a minor nuisance to vehicles than a hazard to people) are repeated a dozen times throughout the book.
Kitts informs us on page 58, in large, bold type that “When the ships came closer [to the island], they wrecked [sic] on the sandbars and then pirates robbed and murdered the people on the ships.”
On page 60, under the heading: “The “Graveyard of the Atlantic” rarely gives up its dead”, a reference is made to the sinking of the Andrea Gail off Sable in 1991 (“…There were six people onboard [sic], but no bodies were ever found. Bodies don’t always wash up on Sable Island. Sometimes they get caught in the currents and float around and around the island.” )
Page 66 tells the story of a Mrs. Copeland, who found herself shipwrecked on Sable. Her ghost is said to haunt Sable Island. Kitts tells us of “…Wreckers [those who steal from shipwrecked vessels] [who] cut off Mrs. Copeland’s ring finger to steal her wedding ring. No one knows if Mrs. Copeland was dead or alive when the ring was stolen but many have claimed to see her ghost at night walking the beach. She is wet and crying and dripping blood from her left hand, which is missing its ring finger.”
In all, I found nine references to “dying/dead” in The Wandering Sandbar, and as many references to “drowned/starved/strangled/eaten”. The writing style is repetitive; the words “danger/dangerous”, and “body/bodies” are spread liberally throughout the book.
Six of the book’s images portray animal corpses or remains.
Perhaps most troubling of all is that The Wandering Sandbar is riddled with inaccurate or misleading “facts”. These are too numerous to review here, but typical examples include two photos of skulls on pages 45 and 53. They are captioned as being horse skulls, when in fact they are seal skulls.
On page 15 readers will find a photo of an albatross corpse with its stomach contents (mostly plastic bottle caps) in full view. The fact that the bird died from ingesting this plastic litter is disturbing; what I find more disturbing is Kitts’ failure to mention that this photo is not about Sable Island. Albatrosses are very rarely sighted anywhere near Sable, and this photo was taken on Midway Atoll in the Pacific Ocean.
There is much more that Kitts needs to tell young readers, but doesn’t. A perfect example is found on page 52. Under the heading: “No help allowed”, readers are shown a pathetic looking horse having one leg that is longer than the other three. The caption reads, in part: “It is against the law for anyone to feed, touch, or even help [my emphasis] the wild horses of Sable Island.”
Unless informed otherwise, the reader is left to feel that the Canadian government policy is callous and insensitive to the welfare of Sable’s horses. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In 1960, the Sable Island Regulations in the Canada Shipping Act were enacted to ensure that:
“No person shall, without prior written permission from the Agent … molest, interfere with, feed, or otherwise have anything to do with the ponies on the Island.”
The legislation is intended to protect the horses from human interference, allowing them to live their lives as free, wild animals. Kitts has a duty to inform young readers of the law’s intention; otherwise, she is engaging in sensationalism.
The Wandering Sandbar is a book of unfulfilled potential. The book’s concept—to walk young readers through time, from the creation of Sable eons ago through its more recent history to Sable Island as we know it today—is ambitious, and laudable. To apply this concept in print the author must be able to explain complex scientific phenomena (the geology of Sable’s formation; the meteorological work performed at the Station; the effects of converging ocean currents, etc.) in terms young people can understand, while ensuring that all of the facts presented are accurate. It is this accuracy that is lacking in The Wandering Sandbar.
For this book to be meaningful the author’s research should have drawn upon the knowledge of those having an extensive familiarity with the Island, and a sound scientific background. The author’s manuscript should then have been proofread by such individuals, to ensure its scientific accuracy. Regrettably, this does not appear to have been the case.
I first became aware of Sable Island some fifty years ago, when I read a story about its wild and free horses in an elementary school reader. As a young boy I was intrigued by this distant and untamed land—so far away yet still a part of my country, Canada. This began my lifelong fascination with, and abiding interest in, the island, its history, and its future.
If my introduction to Sable as a young boy had been The Wandering Sandbar, I’m sure my reaction would have been quite different. I would have closed the cover thinking that Sable Island was a foreboding, desolate, dangerous place—somewhere to avoid, at all costs.
This book could have been an excellent resource for children and educators were it not for its numerous inaccuracies, and a morbid focus. I would recommend that you take a pass on The Wandering Sandbar.
Prepared for the Sable Island Green Horse Society
by William Lawrence Meikle (Brockville, Ontario), November 2011 ©