Friday, May 31, 2013

Island of Wings

Island of Wings
Karin Altenberg
Penguin Books
New York, New York
ISBN: 0143120662
$ 15.00
320 pages
Most of us know very little about the island of Hirta, which is part of the St. Kilda archipelago, one of the Outer Hebrides, the islands off the northern part of Scotland.  Hirta is isolated and in July of 1830 this was the destination of a missionary and his young wife. (The island was eventually evacuated in 1930 and is now used only for defense and conservation.)
The missionary for the Church of Scotland, Neil McKenzie, knew Gaelic and could communicate in words even though their life style, local customs, superstitions, and beliefs were all foreign to him. How could he teach these people to become modern, educated, spiritual people like those in Glasgow?
Unfortunately, his wife, Lizzie, knew no Gaelic. Being in a strange land with a different language, unusual customs and superstitions, and unsanitary living conditions, great challenged her as an expectant mother of their first child. Learning how to survive with what was available on the island along with little communication from anywhere else, made day-to-day living a challenge. What happens in the long winter months when there are no more birds for food? Added to this, most of the newborns died on the eighth day after their birth. Why?
Island of Wings is a fictionalized account of the real people who actually were the missionaries. Their experiences on this island has been documented. Karin Altenberg beautifully intertwined these events into this debut novel which feels like an act of love in describing the people, customs, and physical aspects of the island and creating a tale about how both Neil and Lizzie would have felt and reacted to this isolated culture. Her experience as a PhD in archeology shines through utilizing her studies for the information and the basis of survival. Understanding of the people of St. Kilda and how they would react to the organized religion which conflicted with their superstitions is outstanding in that the reader is discovering these people along with the characters.
Island of Wings is one of those rare gems which succeeds in interweaving the past events with real people into an act of becoming a wonderful and memorable tale.

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