In search of an island paradise; Island Sojourn, by Elizabeth Arthur. New York: Harper & Row. $9.95. Saltbound, by Chilton Williamson Jr. New York: Methuen. $10.95.
". . . [W]e dreamed of making a permanent home in the wilderness, apart from the forces we thought were destroying and polluting the world. In the isolation of an island sanctuary we hoped to find a life of simplicity and peace."
Which of us hasn't at one time or another fervently echoed these words with which Elizabeth Arthur prefaces "Island Sojourn"? But -- for most of us -- the dream of a simpler, more decent existence, cut off from the mainland of our past , remains just that -- an illusion never spoiled because it is never tested. But Ms. Arthur and her husband, Bob Gathercole, did challenge the dream, and from that experience we have her account of the two years they spent alone on a three-acre lump of land in the middle of a lake in British Columbia.
At first, the island seems an Eden, serene and unspoiled, but hopes of a "simple existence" soon dissolve in the struggle to get their house built. ". . . I have never in my life felt more completely tied to objects: raw materials and the tools to shape them with, garbage and structure."
Difficulties in erecting their home foreshadow the way other problems will be magnified and intensified by the island's isolation and by Liz and Bob's complete reliance upon each other. "The island itself is a magnifying glass for our emotions. We are stranded here, cast away on a small platform beneath the sky."
Midway through their first winter, the couple are forced to return to the mainland and take menial jobs to replenish their bank account. They return, but solitude begins to show its teeth. When a fierce winter storm leaves them islandbound for too long, Elizabeth and Bob turn on each other simply out of fury at the sameness of their days and the impossibility of escape. In the end, their dream cannot survive reality -- the island is abandoned, civilization confronted once more.
On his island, recounted in "Saltbound," Chilton Williamson Jr. faced the opposite extreme -- not too much solitude, but too many people, all having to share the same limited piece of land. "Saltbound" records the author's experiences during one winter season on Block Island, an 11-square-mile chunk of earth situated in Narragansett Bay, 14 miles off the coast of Rhode Island.
Where Elizabeth Arthur's story is intensely personal, presenting her reaction to each event, Williamson approaches his narrative like a good journalist, recording without comment, allowing events and characters to speak for themselves.
When Block Island shakes off its summer load of tourists and "trippers," fewer than 1,000 islanders remain, a tough, scrappy, independent lot who thumb their noses at what they call "America" even as they struggle to subsist in an economy that relies heavily on the mainland.
Despite a deep attachment to this way of life, Williamson, too, returns to the mainland in the end, and so echoes Elizabeth Arthur's conclusion that the dream of escaping to an island of one's own is like any other romantic fancy -- better imagined than realized.