Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Island of the Lost - Joan Druett

UPS and the Postal Service have failed to get the comics I ordered here by today. So you get the post I had planned for Thursday instead. Hopefully the comics will have shown up by tomorrow.

In October 1864, two different ships wrecked on the Auckland Islands south of New Zealand. Francois Raynal and Thomas Musgrave led the Grafton, with a crew of three under them to those islands, hoping to at least bring some seal pelts home after a wasted trip to the Campbell Islands searching for a vein of tin that might have silver. The five men survived the wreck, but found themselves in a fairly inhospitable location. Fortunately, they were able to salvage quite a lot of supplies from their ship, and pulled together to survive.

The Invercauld wrecked a few months later. There were 19 men on the ship, but there was very little that could be saved from the ship. The crew utterly failed to pull together, the captain and his mates sat around in a stupor (and probably killed two of their cabin boys by making them constantly fetch water and food rather than, you know, get off their lazy asses and do it themselves), and most of them died. The two groups of castaways were 20 miles apart and completely unaware of each other.

Druett starts with the Grafton's story, and then, once the Invercauld wrecks, begins moving back and forth between the groups as times passes. Even then, I think there's more focus on the Grafton, but that may be owing to Musgrave and Raynal both doing better keeping logbooks and records of their experiences, both of which were later turned into books. Also, Captain Dalgarno's accounts of what happened to the Invercauld's crew contradict those of his mate Andrew Smith, and Robert Holding, the seaman who did most of the work keeping anyone alive. these various excerpts are interesting enough, but Druett's an effective descriptive writer, explaining discrepancies or helping the reader to understand challenges the crews faced the journals don't expand on, or misunderstood. The descriptions of the landscape are excellent, although I don't know if Druett intends for me to want to visit the islands. I don't want to live there mind you, just go and see them.

Mostly, I was impressed by the ingenuity of the crew. Building a house with a stone chimney out of the twisted, bent trees on the island is impressive enough. But Raynal figures out how to make soap from the ingredients at hand, constructs bellows and a forge to make nails and some basic tools, figures out a way to turn seal pelts into actually worthwhile shoes. That was pretty impressive to me, as was the fact that, even if they thought some of the ideas were farfetched (like the soap) the other four men were willing to pick up the slack on collecting firewood or hunting while he did that. But that cooperation is the key for the Grafton's crew. Early on, there's a noted sense that the three crewmen don't appreciate taking orders From Musgrave so much now that they're stranded. So they decide to take nominations for leader. Raynal nominates Musgrave, and the others readily agree. So Musgrave is still in charge, but now the men feel they got a say in it, and that helps smooth things over.

'When the sounds of their voices had faded, there were other noises - the hiss and thud of the sea, the cries of restless birds, the pattering of rain, and the rustle and crack of windblown branches - but behind it all lay an oppressive silence, a preternatural awareness of complete and dreadful isolation.'


SallyP said...

This sounds really interesting.

CalvinPitt said...

It definitely was. There's a lot that goes into the survival of the Grafton's crew that I didn't get into because I didn't want to spoil it all.