These Granite Islands
By Sarah Stonich
University of Minnesota Press 2013
These Granite Islands just might be the perfect book to bring along on a North Shore vacation. Originally published in 2001, the University of Minnesota Press recently released a new edition, with a lovely cover photograph of a woman spinning underwater in a graceful dress. This evocative image is perfect for a story set in Cypress, Minnesota, a fictitious Iron Range town surrounded by deep lakes and maze-like waterways with hidden islands, steep cliffs, and secret ledges.
Although the important events of the story occur in 1936, we experience the not-so-ordinary life of Isobel Howard, mother, milliner and tailor’s wife as she puzzles over her life from a St. Paul hospital bed in 1999. Stonich skillfully weaves together the past and present to create a story of a woman who questions her marriage, grieves tragic losses, chafes under sexual stereotypes, while she wrestles to grasp what really happened the summer her husband took her sons to live on an island while she stayed home with her daughter.
Immediately, Isobel enjoys her freedom from cooking, cleaning and caring for three males. She is pleased to learn that, “the house was going to stay clean, possibly for the summer….Meals were simple and small, and as the weather grew warmer, their appetites withered.”
She tackles the organization of her husband’s disorderly tailor shop and rediscovers her creativity as a milliner, a skill she acquired in her single days. Soon, Cathryn Malley, the restless wife of the town’s mine owner, visits her shop and the women form a close friendship, which include creating hats, tailoring clothes and sharing secrets. Stonich expertly describes this small Iron Range town, a place in which women yearn for fashion and beauty, but also know that even in summer, a wool hat will be more comfortable, and practical, than one made of silk.
Among many things, Isobel fears water, but when Cathryn insists she learn to paddle a canoe, her terror eases. Mastering the canoe helps Isobel ease her grip on doing everything absolutely right; she sees how the canoe rides over the ups and downs:
“The first few afternoons in the canoe were terrifying. Isobel held tightly to the sides…The canoe was wide enough and watertight, but she still felt lurches of fear when it shifted under her or rolled in the black water…After several days she was comfortable enough to hold a book on her knees, and rocking along with the rhythm of the boat, she learned to shift her weight to compensate for swells.”
A lightning storm and a devastating fire lead to the disappearance of two residents, and the town is suspicious that Isobel knows more than she tells. But does she? Stonich leaves us hanging, but in a satisfying real-life way. The story is enhanced by the wisdom that memory is unreliable, the truth often eludes us, and people’s behavior can be confounding.
As Isobel moves into old age, she still struggles, still questions the path her life has taken, and still mulls over what happened in the summer of 1936. Stonich plumbs the depths of her characters, especially Isobel, to reveal great courage, endurance and love.
As a miner explained to Isobel on a rare tour of the Cypress mine:
“Layers of history right here to examine, folks,” He held out his free fist as if to represent the earth. “The landscape, the earth’s crust, looks secure up above, but below, down here, there’s ceaseless change.”
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