Thursday, January 21, 2010

Abel's Island

Castaways are usually rather romantic figures in literature. Whether along the lines of Robinson Crusoe or the Swiss Family Robinson, stories about shipwreck victims are always more about ingenuity and courage than about the characters themselves. In William Steig's Abel's Island, as courageous and ingenious as Abel is, he remains very cerebral and much of the story is about the emotional ups and downs he faces during his year alone on an island. It bears saying, too, that Abel is not a strapping sailor like Robinson Crusoe, but is a mouse unaccustomed to work of any sort.

Abel ends up on the island because, during an afternoon picnic with his wife Amanda, a hurricane blows through. They take shelter in a cave with a number of other animals, but when Amanda's scarf pulls loose and is caught by the wind, Abel chases after it. Soon he is caught up by the wind and the storm and is swept into a culvert where he manages to scramble onto a small board before the water level rises and the board and Abel are taken into the river.

The next day, Abel wakes up on his board in the upper branches of a cherry oak on an uninhabited island in the middle of the river. After trying to build several different kinds of boats (all of which are destroyed by the river's current) and attempting to sling a piece of homemade rope across the river (which he lacks the strength to do), Abel is forced to face facts. For the time being, he is stuck on the island.

Initially, he resents the island and the sort of prison it represents. He misses his wife and his family, but because he assumes they must be frantically worried about him, he comforts himself with thoughts of their search efforts. Abel is a rather upper-class mouse and, prior to his arrival on the island, had only ever watched animals work. But soon he discovers that to survive, he must start looking after himself.

He finds a rotten log to hollow out into a home, weaves mats for the floor and to serve as window covers and begins storing away nuts and seeds for the winter. In his leisure time, he uses clay he collects from the riverbank to build statues of his loved ones, as well as construct dishes for himself. He also makes little bowls to float down the river, holding notes asking for help.

But life doesn't just fall into place for Abel. There is an owl on the island that terrorizes him and, after one perilous encounter, he is forced to fight it off using his little penknife. It's after the owl attack and as winter sets in that Steig gives us a real look at Abel's mind. Being all alone makes him a little crazy, he starts chanting curses at owl feathers he finds, after months of silence he begins to talk to himself (including full-on arguments) and he talks to his statues as though they are real people.

But Abel makes it through the winter, even if only barely, and in the spring an old toad arrives on the island, out of breath after being caught up by the swollen and swiftly moving spring river. Abel and Gower become friends, and Abel is quite devastated when Gower, after two months, regains enough of his strength to leave the island. Alone again, Abel is almost resigned to life there when a drought sets in, lowering the water level in the river sufficiently for him to risk swimming across.

And so he escapes, almost exactly one year after arriving. But on his way home he is attacked by a cat, narrowly escaping up a tree. But of course, being the hero of a children's story, Abel survives and makes it home to his lovely Amanda, who is both delighted to see her scarf again and be reunited with her husband.

Abel's Island is a deceptively simple story. On the surface, it's about a mouse who finds himself a castaway, must survive for a year and then ends up back in his luxurious life. But below that, it's about what happens to us when we are alone. In many ways, what gets Abel through his time on the island is his routine and his belief that he will make it home again. But during the winter, when he's cold and more alone than ever, his thought that there is no other world and that winter will last forever are almost painfully realistic.

Steig, by using a mouse as his hero, tells a story about a man who's a bit lost in life. Abel doesn't have a vocation and, prior to arriving on the island, he didn't really have anything to keep him going except garden parties and satin cravats. When faced with his own mortality, he fights to survive, and although it may be a little cliché now, the importance of goals and skills are privileged in this story. As a messages for children go, that's a pretty good one. And maybe it's not such a bad reminder for adults either.

Abel’s Island
By William Steig
First published in 1976 by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux (cover image from that edition)

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