THE ISLAND HARP by Jeanne Williams…..(St. Martin’s Press, 1991)

Scottish Island Fictionisland harp

The year is 1844 and Mairi and her family live a simple but satisfying life on the Island of Lewis in the Hebrides. They raise sheep, weave their tweed fabrics, farm, fish, and send their young men to fight in the English Queen’s army; all this to ensure their rents are paid to the factor and that they may remain on the land. But sheep are a more profitable use of the land than humans so they are deceived and men are sent to turn-out the villagers and burn their homes and processions. Mairi’s beloved grandfather is killed during this attack, although his prized harp is rescued.  The villagers are still dazed by what has happened when an Englishman, who has been renting a nearby estate, stumbles upon them and offers some temporary shelter. It is during this time of “the clearances” that many islanders will immigrate to North America or Australia but Mairi is determined to remain on the land of her ancestors.

Now allow me this awkward digression while I reminisce about a 60’s American tv show called “Green Acres” and trust me that I will eventually make a point about this. This is a very basic outline——-In this comedy sitcom, a successful Park Avenue lawyer leaves city life behind and purchases a farm (a fixer-upper in the extreme) and moves there with his socialite wife. On many occasions throughout the show, people ask this fellow (Mr. Douglas) why he chose to become a farmer. And he answers them. He usually delves into a speech about the farmers being the backbone of the country …. and ancestors turning to the earth……planting small seeds in the ground and watching plants shoot  into the air…..growing food and breathing fresh air…..and blah blah blah. During these speeches, the audience can hear a fife in the background playing a patriotic tune—usually Yankee Doodle or something.  Now here is where I make my connection, you see Mairi liked to give these impassioned speeches about her ancestors living on this land…the land and the music are a part of her….in her veins and body….and the unfairness of the English taking their land…and so on, and so on.  At this point I probably should have heard bag pipes or something in my head, but noooo—I had Pocahontas singing away. Weird right!  You think you own whatever land you land on, The earth is just a dead thing you can claim, But I know every rock and tree and creature, Has a life, has a spirit, has a name.  You think the only people who are people, are the people who look and think like you…..”Colors of the Wind”
 Mairi gives alot of speeches and the reader is privy to her thoughts. Yeah so I spent a great deal of this book with Pocahonas singing in my head. It was like “don’t think of pink elephants” if you catch my meaning. I must say that “Colors of the Wind” is appropriate.

The Islanders have to deal with nonhuman problems as well –the potato famine, harsh weather, and angry seas. There is more to Mairi’s story but I don’t want to get into spoiler territory. I read some reviews before I read this book and some people found Mairi a little too headstrong but I liked her and I liked the book. Oh and there is a love story as well.

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February 6, 2015 · 12:39 am

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