Light Between the Oceans a Shining Debut

The Light Between Oceans (2012)
M. L. Stedman
Simon & Schuster 978-1451681758
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This isn’t the sort of novel I generally read. Some would call it “chick lit;” others might dismiss it as “sentimental.” Call it what you wish, but my measure of a good book is one in which an author forces me enjoy a cup of tea the likes of which I’d usually not imbibe.   

Travel through Europe or Australasia and even the smallest towns have monuments to the fallen sons of the Great War, as World War One is generally called outside of North America. Call the conflict the final death of innocence–an event so horrifying that few retained enough faith to believe it would be the “war to end all wars,” as Woodrow Wilson promised. The Great War nipped in the bud the flower of sixteen million youths; those who survived were often physically or psychically scarred for life. Australian Tom Sherburne was one such man. Although he escaped bodily harm, he’s haunted by what he’s seen, what he’s done, and the comrades he’s lost. Above all, Sherburne is a moral man who believes in sin and cannot reconcile himself to his role in the carnage. He wonders why he survived when others he considers more heroic and noble did not. He feels so estranged from humanity that he chooses self-imposed exile and becomes a lighthouse keeper, first off the coast of Tasmania and later on Janus, a one-mile square hunk of rock a hundred miles off Australia’s western coast.

Fiction readers will recognize a guilty conscience as a loaded version of Chekov’s gun.  The Light Between the Oceans spans the years 1918 to 1950, with emphasis on the middle 1920s. A lighthouse keeper’s life couldn’t be lonelier. Every six months boatmen Ralph and Bluey show up to re-provision the keeper and, once every three years, Tom gets leave in the port town of Partageuse. There he meets Isabel Graysmark, ten years his junior, and they fall for each other. Tom tries valiantly to frighten off “Izzy,” as he thinks Janus too remote for a spirited young woman. He’s wrong about that; once they’re married, Izzy takes to Janus like a koala takes to eucalyptus leaves. The missing piece of her bliss is a baby, and that’s where misfortune deals a heavy blow–two miscarriages and a stillbirth in three years and no doctor within a hundred miles of ocean. The loss of the last child has pushed Izzy close to the edge. And then, a miracle?

In 1926, a boat washes ashore with an odd cargo: a dead man and a live baby. By-the-book Tom wants to report the incident immediately, but Izzy chooses to see a discarded cardigan as proof that the mother drowned, and the delivery of a half-starved babe to her milk-saturated breasts as a gift from God. Janus is a well-named island; it stands where the waters of the Indian Ocean tempestuously mingle with those of the Great Southern Sea. It’s also a metaphor for Tom’s dilemma. Does he please his wife, who has named and begun to raise “Lucy” as her own daughter, or does he do as his conscience commands and report the incident in case there’s a grieving mother somewhere on the mainland? Beacon lights are both comforts to seamen and warnings. Is the “light” between the oceans the glow of Lucy’s radiance, or the flickering of Tom’s conscience?  And, when it turns out there is a grieving mother, what does one do about now four-year-old Lucy? Does Tom do the moral thing and alienate his wife and break the hearts of in-laws Bill and Violet who lost both of their sons in the war? Can he give up Lucy? What would you do?

Stedman tugs at the heartstrings as she teases out the intricacies of Tom’s moral crisis and the emotional turmoil of biological mother Hannah (who has sorrows of her own), caregiver Izzy, and family members on both sides. In the middle stands Lucy. What is best for her? Much like the Great War, there doesn’t seem to be any happy ending.

I confess that motherhood tales are not generally on my reading list, but Stedman lured me in. Her descriptions of isolation, lighthouse tending, and survival on the margins are vivid and thought provoking. The moral dilemmas she poses could occupy an ethics class for a week and leave plenty on the table for a debate over gender dynamics. This is M(argot). L. Stedman’s debut novel and it’s (pun intended) an illuminating one.

Rob Weir


Brandeis Gutless to Reject Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Don't like what she says? Make it not so!
A tale of two honorary degrees. This May, Smith College will award an honorary doctorate to Christine Lagarde, the current head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). That same month, Brandeis University will not award an honorary doctorate to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose degree was withdrawn because of her outspoken criticism of Islam.

Let us take pause. Both women are accomplished and deserving–though I agree with neither in total. Ms. Ali is undoubtedly controversial. She calls Islam the “new fascism” and calls for its defeat–and she means an overthrow of the entire faith, not just pacification of its radical elements. She has denounced Muhammad as a false prophet who lived an immoral life, and the Koran as a non-sacred book. Ali was born in Somalia–from which her family escaped when she was eight–and renounced Islam for atheism after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. She was headed in that direction anyhow, as Ali witnessed Islamic misogny as expressed in forms such as genital circumscion of girls, forced marriages, Sharia law, and the veiling of women. Ms. Ali is the screenplay writer of the movie The Submission, for which her director, Theodore van Gogh, was assassinated in 2004. She too was targeted and was forced to go into hiding. Let’s just say the woman has her reasons for her views on Islam.

That said, Ali is indeed a distinguished person worthy of an honorary degree. In addition to her screenplay, she has authored three books and an autobiography–all of which are hyper-critical of Islam. She served for five years in the Dutch Parliament, has taught at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and has won a host of freedom and humanitarian awards in both Europe and the United States, where she now resides. That’s a pretty good resumé for someone just 44-years-old. Did I mention that she’s also a political conservative?

Her political views are actually quite consonant of those of Christine Lagarde, though Lagarde has never voiced her views on Islam. Isn’t it interesting that a woman who has done no harm, has been the victim of hate crimes, has endured threats, and supports women thr rights of women is considered too dangerous and controversial, but the head of the IMF is viewed as “distinguished.” To reiterate, I find both women ‘distinguished,’ but the IMF has certainly done more harm around the globe than Ms. Ali. The IMF is singularly focused on the stablization of currency and free trade. Its policies are often very controversial and its fixation on economic stability has led it to support authoritarian governments and all manner of development projects that ignore the enviroment, cultural preferences, and health standards. It is an elitist organization that is inherently anti-democratic and often drafts policies that violate the national sovergnty of cooperating nations. The IMF is responsible for both the blessings of global capitalism, and its myriad curses. Oh, by the way, Lagarde–like Ali–is conservative politically, but also supports the dismanting of sexist barriers. I guess it’s not controversial if those barriers are economic.

Are Ali’s views too radical? Compared to what? Brandeis, a historically Jewish university, granted Amos Oz an honorary degree, though he was critical of Judaism! Ali’s husband, historian/commentator Niall Ferguson, has honoary degrees, though his views are on par with hers. Lots of schools confer degrees on controversial people: Andrew Card (George W. Bush’ chief of staff) got an honorary degree from UMass Amherst; SUNY Stony Brook gave one to Kermit the Frog, which is easier to stomach than those garnered around the world by Henry Kissinger. Barack Obama, who is pro-choice, collected one from Notre Dame, a Catholic univeristy. Judith Butler has one from McGill, though her anti-Israel views border on anit-Semitism. Hell, even Kim Cattrall has an honorary degee, though you’d have to argue mighty hard that she’s more distringuished than Ms. Ali.

The moral is that honorary degrees are given as much for name recognition (and hope of attracting donors) as contributions to scholarship or humanity. If you want to make a case for getting rid of these altogether, you’d find mine a willing ear. That hasn’t happened, which makes the Brandeis decision gutless and galling. To the millions of Muslims who find her views insenstive, I say two things–the first of which is that controversy and debate are the very touchstones of liberal democracy. Those unwilling to live under such free-exchange of ideas regimes should reside elsewhere. The second thought is that those who don’t like what Ali says should seek to change the horrifying conditions she documents. Ali doesn’t have a forum because she lies, but because she speaks truth to (male) power. The abuses she documents are not conjured from imagination, but from the daily news. Please spare us the empty sanctimony that other religions are also abusive to women. We know that. The challenge is to stop the abuse, not make mushy-headed excuses for it. I think Ms. Ali overstates her fears, but I share her view that human rights should always trump religious rights. It is nothing short of hypocrisy to award degrees to those who entertain us or run our economies, but turn our backs on those that tell us that half of the world’s population is being ill-served in the name of faith.  


Bill Bryson Takes Us Back to 1927

One Summer: America, 1927. By Bill Bryson. New York: Doubleday, 2013. ISBN: 978-0767919401. 

This review originally appeared on the Website nepca.wordpress.com but is reprinted here because the book is of general interest. 

Travel, science, humor, language, memoir, history–in the past thirty years few writers have matched Bill Bryson’s observational skills, acerbic wit, sense of wonder, or appreciation for irony. For his twenty-second book, Bryson takes an in-depth look at the summer of 1927 when,

… Babe Ruth hit sixty homeruns. The Federal Reserve made the mistake that precipitated the stock market crash. Al Capone enjoyed his last summer of eminence. The Jazz Singer was filmed. Television was created. Radio came of age. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed. President Coolidge chose not to run. Work began on Mount Rushmore. The Mississippi flooded as it never had before. A madman in Michigan blew up a school and killed forty-four people in the worst slaughter of children in American history. Henry Ford stopped making the Model T and promised to stop insulting Jews. And a kid from Minnesota flew across an ocean and captivated the planet in a way it had never been captivated before. (Chapter 30, Location 38 of 39)

That’s extraordinary by any measure, yet it’s shocking how many scholars have rendered it prosaic under a mountain of turgid prose. Not Bryson–his account surpasses even Frederick Lewis Allen’s classic Only Yesterday (1931) as an accessible, lively account of the 1920s. He does so by putting the story back into history. Bryson skillfully weaves a cogent narrative of events rooted in biography, drama and melodrama–often using the figures above (and others) as the vehicle for unveiling the period. He’s aware that historical forces precipitate social change more than individuals, but what could be more appropriate than putting hyped heroes at the center of a study of the 1920s? As Warren Susman reminded us in his path breaking Culture as History (1984), the 1920s was when American culture began to value personality over character. The bigger that personality the better–the Roaring Twenties has long been configured as the Age of Ballyhoo.  

Bryson appropriately opens a book about excess with the lionization of Charles Lindbergh. His May solo flight across the Atlantic has become so legendary that it’s easy to overlook just how dangerous and audacious it was. He was indeed “Lucky Lindy,” as both sides of the Atlantic were littered with the bodies of those who sought the $25,000 Orteig Prize and vanished without a trace. Just 24 years had passed since the Wright brothers, plane bodies were still made of fabric, no one had yet invented an accurate fuel gauge, and most pilots–Lindbergh included–were dubbed “experienced” by virtue of having survived numerous crashes. Lindbergh couldn’t even see where he was going without leaning over the side of the fuselage. If nothing else, Bryson’s account is a superb short history of aviation.

As Bryson also shows, though, with the possible exception of President Calvin Coolidge, one could hardly have picked a less likely hero than Lindbergh. Bryson refuses to fall prey to hype. He honors Lindbergh’s bravery and pities the ordeal the agoraphobic Minnesotan was forced to endure, but he also explores Lindbergh’s misanthropy, authoritarian tendencies, and his vicious anti-Semitism. These two sides of the coin make up a subtheme of One Summer. The same month Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic witnessed the trial of Judd Gray and Ruth Snyder for the garroting death of Snyder’s husband. Likewise, the same summer that saw Babe Ruth slug 60 home runs and Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney slug each other, also saw anarchists plant bombs, Al Capone be hailed as a civic model, Ku Klux Klan members elected to Congress, eugenics classes taught in American universities, and all manner of bigotry thrive–especially in rural America, the last bastion of Prohibition believers.

Bryson’s nuanced view of 1927 is one of the book’s many pleasures. Another is his attention to small details such as Coolidge’s 4 ½ hour naps, the final hours of Sacco and Vanzetti, and the delicious comment (from John Reed) that baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis had the “face of Andrew Jackson three years dead.” Bryson also excels at summary–his epilogue manages to extrapolate the future implications of all that happened during the summer of 1927 into twenty-eight pages: Lindbergh’s fall from grace, Philo Farnsworth’s redemption, Herbert Hoover’s hubris, the collapse of prosperity walls built upon hope and sand….

It’s rare to find a book that’s at once historically sound, witty, and fun to read. One Summer is now available in paperback and e-text. It’s one of the better books on American politics and culture that I’ve read in some time.

Robert E. Weir
Smith College