Title: San Miguel
Author: T.C. Boyle
Publisher: Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Format: Hardcover / Audiobook
My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Get Your Own: Amazon
On a tiny, desolate, windswept island off the coast of Southern California, two families, one in the 1880s and one in the 1930s, come to start new lives and pursue dreams of self-reliance and freedom. Their extraordinary stories, full of struggle and hope, are the subject of T. C. Boyle’s haunting new novel.
Thirty-eight-year-old Marantha Waters arrives on San Miguel on New Year’s Day 1888 to restore her failing health. Joined by her husband, a stubborn, driven Civil War veteran who will take over the operation of the sheep ranch on the island, Marantha strives to persevere in the face of the hardships, some anticipated and some not, of living in such brutal isolation. Two years later their adopted teenage daughter, Edith, an aspiring actress, will exploit every opportunity to escape the captivity her father has imposed on her. Time closes in on them all and as the new century approaches, the ranch stands untenanted.
And then in March 1930, Elise Lester, a librarian from New York City, settles on San Miguel with her husband, Herbie, a World War I veteran full of manic energy. As the years go on they find a measure of fulfillment and serenity; Elise gives birth to two daughters, and the family even achieves a celebrity of sorts. But will the peace and beauty of the island see them through the impending war as it had seen them through the Depression? Rendered in Boyle’s accomplished, assured voice, with great period detail and utterly memorable characters, this is a moving and dramatic work from one of America’s most talented and inventive storytellers.
San Miguel on Goodreads
San Miguel by T.C. Boyle has been sitting on my TBR shelves for several years now. I was starting to think that I might need to just get rid of it (along with some other books I haven’t decided to pick up) if I didn’t read it by the end of the year. Then I saw that the audiobook was available from my library and I decided to give it a try – if I didn’t fall for it within a couple chapters I would ditch it. But oh my goodness I loved it! This book was a joy to listen to and I found myself wanting to go live out there on San Miguel Island with the characters.
The book is broken down into two parts; the first part follows the Waters family who occupied the island in the 1880s and the second part follows the Lester family who moved out there in the 1930s. I didn’t know this while listening to the book, but both families were real. The Waters and the Lester families really did live out on San Miguel Island ranching sheep and from what I can tell, T.C. Boyle did his research well to record the details of their lives.
Although San Miguel Island is not inhabited by any predators to humans, life for the Waters and Lester families was not easy. They were essentially stranded (by choice) on a remote island in the Pacific ocean, four hours (at least) by boat from land. Due to overgrazing the land was barren and the soil was inhospitable to most plant life, so all their food provisions had to be brought from the mainland and stored for future use. Contrary to Captain Waters assertions, the climate was not all that hospitable – especially for his wife Marantha who was suffering from tuberculosis while living on the island.
T.C. Boyle’s writing is descriptive and atmospheric; you can actually feel the damp chill of the winter months and the gentle warmth of the summer sun as you read along. Maybe it’s because I live along the Central Coast of California and I look out at the Channel Islands everyday, but Boyle’s writing was so vivid that even though I was reading inside, I felt as if I were sitting on the island’s scrubby hillside looking out across the channel at the mainland.
Just like the island’s environment, Boyle’s characters were well-developed and it’s clear that he used real historical evidence to portray their personalities and relationships with each other and their few vistors.
Historical fiction has always been my favorite genre – especially historical fiction based on real people and events. When I was little my dad read the Little House on the Prairie series to me and I fell in love with the descriptions of everyday life out in the wilderness. San Miguel reminded me of Little House on the Prairie – only the wilderness was that of the California Channel Islands with their crazy winter rain storms, fog, sheep, and dust. If you enjoy well-researched historical fiction that recounts day-to-day life, living-off-the-land type stories give San Miguel a try.
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