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Paradise Misplaced

Island Sojourn By Elizabeth Arthur Harper & Row, $9.95

By William E. Mckibben

SHE THINKS Thoreau, he's sort of a fraud," the press agent says over the phone. Here's a spark of interest--after all, Henry David shows up about 36 inches into the Five Foot Shelf of Books. And now someone's gotten the goods on him, found some grinning skeleton of Piltdown Man in the closet of his rude cabin. Okay, so send the book.

As it turns out, Island Sojourn is nothing so interesting as that, nothing more than somebody else's account of moving out into the wilderness, where there are fewer telephones and the roads aren't as good. As if she sensed the reviewer's disappointment, the agent sent along a press kit; the enclosed bibliograhpy promises that the book is more than a "wilderness journal, it is a modern day Walden, and a reflection of Arthur's personal journey from innocence to experience."

Arthur truly believes she is another Thoreau, gone off to the wilderness to find out something profound and then write it down. But she has the formula reversed; Thoreau, like everyone else who lived in 19th century Concord, was brilliant, and he went off to the woods so he'd have time to ruminate over the thoughts he already had.

Instead of wandering a mile or two to a local pond like Thoreau, Arthur journeyed with her husband to Stuart Lake, British Columbia, 54 degrees, 40 minutes, where they buy a small island and build a house. Their motive is clearly escape: "When we moved to the island, we dreamed of making a permanent home in the wilderness, apart from the forces we thought were destroying and polluting the world."

Of course, it soon emerges that escape is impossible. Slowly, surely the wilderness, the strange neighbors, the open sky come to annoy Arthur. She tries to beat up her husband with a fireplace poker ("I picture it drenched with blood, sticky as my arms, covered with fire," she says of his head). She lays awake at night convinced that the moonlight is actually streaming from the bottom of a UFO. She convinces herself that someone is watching her. "I sit in the snow with my back against a rock. I try to read. After a time the eyes find me there."

She shoots mooses, she cooks mooses, she "crumbles the earth in my hands and smears it on my face and arms. I take off my shirt and pour it over my chest. I toss a shovelful above my head so that it showers into my hair. Cool and dry like powder, it is gritty like sand; it smells like dirt. I can't convince myself that this dirt belongs to me. We have only just met."

It is hard to imagine Thoreau dumping dirt on his head, just as it is hard to imagine him trying to escape from little eyes. He was sane; he went by himself, as hermits must, with no spouse to hit with the tools. And he went for a day's walk from his home, in a hospitable environment where it never hit 50 below, so he could spend his time rowing around in a boat, picking berries, reading classics, keeping a journal, not buying stoves, and not trekking to town for gasoline. Isolation was a means of gaining solitude, not an end in itself.

Clearly, though, Arthur is interested in getting at some real big truths. The Harper and Row people sent around a list of suggested questions for interviewers to ask. Number two ("do you feel that society as a whole is a good thing?") is certainly interesting, but number five is obviously the biggie: "The general theme of Island Sojourn is that all human attempts to control the world must ultimately fail. Can you discuss how you arrived at this philosophy and how it is reflected in your book?" The point, apparently, is that Arthur found that the power of nature, both human and mother, kept her from molding the enviroment she had fantasized when she wrote "an island is a perfect shape to build a dream in."

There is, of course, profundity here: the twentieth century urge to control, its ultimate defeat at the hands of forces more powerful and all that. But the real profundity is that Arthur even thought she might have been able to control a small chunk of the world; had she read Walden before her departure, she could have saved enormous amounts of time and money. For Thoreau's point, never stated outright but implied in both Walden and the essay on Civil Disobedience, is that control is undesirable; instead that happy co-existence of man and nature is both the only hope and the best hope of man. "That government is best which governs least," Thoreau said--and by extension on to the banks of the little lake that served as his home for a year, that man is best which governs least, and attempts to govern least.

It seems a bit cruel to take Arthur this seriously, though she and her press agent invited it, with their constant references to the father of American wilderness writing. Island Sojourn is actually fairly well-written, a sort of Swiss Family Robinson with interpersonal relationships, recommended reading for those planning on building a cabin in a cold-weather climate. And the accounts of Indian heigh-bors are as sensitive and revealing as any other account. But on her own lofty terms, Arthur's book is a failure of mission and accomplishment. Perhaps this quote from Kirkus--Jack and Jill for librarians with masters degrees--included in the press kit for the book, is a proper summation: "Island Sojourn places Arthur firmly in line to join the Hoaglands and Dillards and other astringent precisionists.

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