Island Fog by John Vanderslice – Review

About Island FogIsland Fog

• Paperback: 288 pages
• Publisher: Lavender Ink (April 28, 2014)

Island Fog is a thematic, novel-length collection of stories, all set on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. Nantucket as we know it began as an English settlement relatively early in the colonial period of the United States. In the heyday of its nineteenth century success as a whaling center, the island, for being as small as it is, was quite the cosmopolitan center. Sailors from across the globe mingled with a mixed local population of descendents of the original English settlers, black Americans, and Native Americans. Today too Nantucket is known as being especially open to visitors from around the world. When one travels there, one feels that one is no longer in the United States but in a culturally indistinct, in-between land, somehow equidistant from North America, the Caribbean, and Northern Europe.

Island Fog captures the physical, social, and political atmosphere of the island from both historical and contemporary perspectives. It is divided into two halves, with the first half containing five historical fictions and the latter half containing six contemporary ones. The first historical fiction is set in 1795, only a decade removed from the young America’s formalized independence from Britain, and the last historical fiction is set in 1920, one year after America’s passage of the infamous Volstead Act (prohibition). The middle three historical stories are set, respectively, in 1823, 1837, and 1846, the period when the whaling industry enjoyed its greatest profitability and the island its greatest wealth. The set of contemporary fictions begin in the late twentieth century and continue into the middle of the first decade of this century. Thus the stories of Island Fog bridge four centuries of Nantucket history.

The first story, “Guilty Look,” fictionalizes the real life Nantucket bank robbery of 1795, an event that famously divided the heretofore peaceful “paradise” into warring factions of Quakers and Congregationalists, Jeffersonians and Federalists. The other historical fictions—through first, second, and third person narration—depict a fraught and potentially violent friendship between a self-assured white adolescent and the half-breed son of the last full-blooded Wampanoag on the island (“King Philip’s War”); the trapped existence of a whaling widow, who while she waits for her disappeared and likely deceased husband has begun to waken to her latent lesbian nature (“On Cherry Street”); the tortured inner life of an ex-captain who has never gotten over having to become a cannibal to survive during one particularly harrowing whaling expedition twenty-eight years earlier (“Taste”); and the exasperation of a lonely African-American school teacher who despite being born and raised on the island still does not feel, and is not allowed to feel, like a native (“How Long Will You Tarry?”).

The six contemporary stories examine a variety of island lives, some of them Nantucket natives but others visitors for whom the island is either a last refuge or an existential prison. Along the way, we meet a carpenter whose wife deliberately jumped off the Nantucket to Hyannis ferry, drowning herself and her infant child (“Morning Meal”); a couple in their thirties who has not recovered, and will not recover, from a series of tragic miscarriages (“Beaten”); a retired businessman who feels thoroughly caught by his marriage to a dominating, materialistic woman (“Newfoundland”); a fortyish leader of ghost walks who is haunted by both a literal ghost and a communication from his former lover (“Haunted”); a Jamaican family trying to establish quasi-American lives for themselves on the island, an effort that a new tragedy at the mother’s workplace threatens to unhinge (“Managing Business”); and, finally, an American student who has given up on college and goes to Nantucket for a prearranged summer job only to find a different job there, one that forces him to reconsider everything he thought he understood about himself, his life, and the island (“Island Fog”).

The focus of every one of the eleven stories in the collection is on the characters populating them: their latent desires and disappointing pasts, their future hopes and drastic, misguided decisions.  These are stories, not treatises on American cultural history. Yet by gathering together in one place all these pieces, a provocative and even cutting picture of Nantucket—its physical beauty, its social tensions, its preening hypocrisies—inevitably arise, making Island Fog far greater than the sum of its gorgeous, sorrowful parts.

Buy, read, and discuss Island Fog

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About John Vanderslice John Vanderslice

John Vanderslice teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Arkansas, where he also serves as associate editor of Toad Suck Review magazine. His fiction, poetry, essays, and one-act plays have appeared in Seattle ReviewLaurel Review, Sou’wester, CrazyhorseSouthern Humanities Review1966, Exquisite Corpse, and dozens of other journals. He has also published short stories in several fiction anthologies, including Appalachian Voice, Redacted StoryChick for a DayThe Best of the First Line: Editors Picks 2002-2006, and Tartts: Incisive Fiction from Emerging Writers.  His new book of short stories, Island Fog, published by Lavender Ink, is a linked collection, with every story set on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts.


My Thoughts:

From the opening chapters of the first story in this collection (“Guilty Look”) to the last words of the last story, I was hooked on John Vanderslice’s writing voice, and on his description of Nantucket as it developed from a small village to a thriving community. Admittedly, my own bias made it difficult for me to see a Quaker as a ‘bad guy’ (although all of Vanderslice’s characters are more complex than such a label would imply), and that made the first story a bit difficult for me, but the storytelling won out in the end, and I remained engaged.

The rest of the stories in this collection, linked by their setting and their populations of imperfect, all-too-human characters, were also fascinating, compelling reads. “Beaten,” which involved a couple who had suffered multiple miscarriages, struck particularly close to home for me (I’ve had two.)

If you’re one of those readers whose only knowledge of Nantucket comes from Elin Hilderbrand’s admittedly-addictive beachy novels with their interchangeable pastel-clad husbands and fantastic restaurants, this book will be a wake-up call to a much grittier, more realistic, and more diverse version of the island.

There’s room for both types of story, of course, and one doesn’t compete with the other at all, but given the choice, I’d pick Vanderslice because every single character felt three-dimensional, flawed, interesting, and really real to me, and because the glimpse at the long history of this community – from settlement to whaling mecca to tourist destination – was also a fascinating glimpse into a distinctly American culture.

This was my first introduction to Vanderslice’s work. I hope it won’t be my last.

Goes well with a steaming bowl of New England clam chowder, and a local micro-brew beer.


John’s Tour Stops TLC Book Tours

This review is part of a blog tour organized by TLC Book Tours. For the complete list of tour stops, see below. For more information, click HERE.

Monday, January 5th: The Year in Books

Tuesday, January 6th: Svetlana’s Reads and Views

Wednesday, January 7th: Books on the Table

Thursday, January 8th: Savvy Verse & Wit

Friday, January 9th: The Book Binder’s Daughter

Monday, January 12th: The Discerning Reader

Tuesday, January 13th: No More Grumpy Bookseller

Wednesday, January 14th: Lit and Life

Friday, January 16th: Peeking Between the Pages

Tuesday, January 20th: Bibliotica

Thursday, January 22nd: A Book Geek

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Island Fog by John Vanderslice – Review by Melissa Bartell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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