In December 1991, Christina Marsden Gillis and her husband, John, suffered two parents’ greatest sorrow: the death of a child. Their son Ben, 26 years old, was killed in Kenya while flying eight European tourists from Mombassa to Little Governors Camp in the Masai Mara game preserve. A large bird flew through the windscreen of the small plane he was piloting; everyone died in the ensuing crash. The Gillises eventually recovered the ashes of their offspring and buried them in the cemetery on Great Gotts Island, their longtime summer home.
In this poignant memoir, Gillis revisits this tragedy within the context of this granite-ringed isle two miles or so off the southern end of Mount Desert Island in Blue Hill Bay. Through descriptions of the island’s people, its landmarks and legends, the author manages to work her way through tragedy, not exactly to reconciliation but to an acceptance of what has happened.
Gillis’s writing is for the most part spare. “The cemetery is a place where people go,” she writes early on, and this simple statement epitomizes her straightforward style. The writing matches the ways of the island, which she documents from the perspective of a seasonal visitor, acknowledging change, good and bad, and the day-to-day pleasures and tribulations of island life. There’s little to find fault with here; an occasional stretched simile (“the houses, like sleeping princesses, will awake”) or Gertrude Stein-esque profundity (“A there contains a not there”) are near-invisible specks in the broader sturdy weave of prose.
Starting at the dock, Gillis works her way around the island, lingering on different elements: paths, houses, granite. “The island house is an anchor in our lives,” she writes, “a steady point that sustains us through all our moves, physical and emotional.” She treats events and activities with equal grace, from an island wedding to maintaining a cemetery. She brings poetic focus to many subjects: an Empress Atlantic wood stove, unexpected visitors, a bit of local language, island dogs. A section on purchasing an island home and everything that haunts it is especially memorable.
Gotts Island has a rich literary history through the novels, poems and short stories of Ruth Moore and Ted Holmes, two writers of national eminence who found a muse there. Gillis pays homage to both, with particular attention paid to Moore, a native islander whose Maine coast writings offer among the most lasting images of a way of life nearly disappeared (Gotts is more or less a summer retreat today).
From time to time Gillis channels these literary predecessors, describing an island scene with a similar vividness. Here’s an example, a blend of the real and surreal:
No one commented at the sight of three people carrying a gravestone to a small motorboat. It was another piece of baggage going out to the island; we made space for it among Chris’s luggage and the inevitable groceries just purchased at Doug’s Shop ‘n Save in Ellsworth.
Gillis’s range of reference is broad and engaging. She will bring in the Cuban artist Ana Mendieta or Virginia Wolff or that famous island couple, the Kellams, from nearby Placentia Island, to highlight a point about island life. She also sketches portraits of islanders: Russie Gott, Lyle and Vee Reed, Norma Stanley, Uncle Mont. Locals and summer people end up sharing a lot, from solitude to the solace of memories of better days.
Writing on Stone offers resonant pictures of a remarkable community. Peter Ralston’s photographs add color intervals to the narrative, and his colleague Philip Conkling’s citation from Goethe about the shock of recognition sets the stage for the memoir that follows. “The island is a gathering,” Gillis writes. “It is a site for undertaking the archaeology of memory. It is the perfect medium.” The author knows whereof she speaks.
Carl Little’s article on Maine island artist residencies is forthcoming in Island Journal.