As some of you might remember from a previous Library Loot posting of mine, I first saw the bookIsland of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World in the university bookstore across from my office a few years ago. After reading the book’s description I was intrigued by what I read and vowed to someday read it. Recently I found a copy of it at my public library and opted to give it a try. After finishing it late last night I’ve concluded that Island of the Lost, while not the most engaging and expertly written work of nonfiction nevertheless does an adequate job telling how individuals succeed and fail when faced with the unenviable task of trying to survive while stranded under inhospitable conditions.
Published in 2007, author Joan Druett tells the tale of not one but two shipwrecks which occurred in 1864 in the extreme south Pacific region between New Zealand and Antarctica. Survivors from the two ships, the Grafton and the Invercauld would find themselves washed up on opposite sides of Auckland Island- a cold, wet and rain-swept mountainous outpost nearly devoid of flora and fauna. Due to the island’s rough terrain, neither group would encounter the other, despite spending almost two years in relative close proximity to each other. Ironically still, while relatively close geographically, when it came to survival strategies figuratively speaking the two groups were light years apart.
The tale of the Grafton‘s survivors reads like a textbook case of how to survive when stranded in an extreme environment without any hope of immediate rescue. Sticking together as a team, the five survivors led by their resourceful and resolute captain built a makeshift shelter from materials salvaged from their wrecked ship as well as anything else they could find on the barren island. Surviving on sea-lions, birds and assorted marine life, they would nearly fall to the ravages of scurvy before fortifying their diet with a native plant. In almost Gilligan’s Island fashion, the resourceful men would use locally obtained materials to fabricate cement, soap and water-resistant boots as well as using materials scavenged from the shipwreck to construct a metal forge and bellows to melt iron into nails. The men would also keep themselves occupied mentally by convening an impromptu college of sorts with two of the men teaching the two illiterates men how to read, who in turn taught the two English speakers Norwegian and Portuguese. All of them being led by their former captain who after the wreck was elected leader by the men and who’s leadership could be revoked at anytime by a vote of the majority.
Meanwhile, the survivors of the Invercauld would be another story. Cursed with an incompetent and uninspiring captain as leader, the survivors would split off and go their own way, eventually succumbing to the effects of cold and starvation and some resorting to cannibalism. Of the 19 men who washed ashore in the end only three would survive.
While this is an amazing tale, unfortunately I don’t think the author quite does it justice. I found Druett’s writing lacking a certain something that could have turned this story from a good one, into a great one. Raspberry G. with her review on Amazon might have said it best:
The stories of the wreck of the Grafton and another boat many months later on Auckland Island, has all the makings of a terrific tale. It has characters with whom we are sympathetic. It has a great plot. It has suspense, drama, and tragedy. It has moments of hope and expectation. Yet it falls far short of its potential. The author stays very true to factual information, and while that’s often important to non-fiction, it leaves something to be desired in the telling. With some foreshadowing, some glittering adjectives, and a little digging into the motivations and feelings of the characters, it could have been a much better story. AS it is, well, it’s just the facts, ma’am. That’s all you get. It’s still worth reading for the story alone, but don’t expect a masterpiece.