In the end I quite liked it. But it did take a while to warm to it — that didn't happen until about a quarter of the way through.
I didn’t really appreciate until much further along that so much of it is based on historical events on the island of San Miguel, one of the Channel Islands across from Santa Barbara in California. Windy, often fogbound, cold, wet and isolated, it was a harsh environment for the sheep ranching family that tried to make a go of it in the late 1800s. They are the subject of the first part of the book.
Marantha Waters was a consumptive who thought she was escaping city air to breathe in the healing fresh Pacific air, so she hopefully accompanied her second husband with their adopted teenage daughter to their new adventure on the island. The book opens with “She was coughing, always coughing, and sometimes she coughed up blood. The blood came in a fine spray, plucked from the fibers of her lungs and pumped full of air as if it were perfume in an atomizer.”
They are taking over the sheep ranching duties from another family. There are no other families on the island, only them and some ranch hands, the hired help. Nothing has prepared them for how hard their life will be — the decrepit shack that will be their home, the poor diet rich only in mutton and seafood, the exhausting work required just to eke out a subsistence living. They are not prepared for how destructive the isolation can be. This would be hard enough for a fit person to deal with, but Marantha is in no shape for it with her frequent relapses of TB.
The second part of the book is about another lone family living on the island 40 years later, through the Depression and into the Second World War. The characters are more sharply defined here than those of the first family; this part of the book was a lot more enjoyable and interesting. It is here that I finally figured out that these stories are steeped in fact. The “Swiss Family Lester” was profiled in Life Magazine back in 1940. http://books.google.ca/books?id=xj8EAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA94&lpg=PA94&dq=swiss+family+lester&source=bl&ots=LlVFuXzURc&sig=dR7XDlz1jFLMfnz3ol8A_ZlTBbk&hl=en&sa=X&ei=lfDwT6GHM8e7rQHTmYH-AQ&ved=0CE0Q6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=swiss%20family%20lester&f=false .
MGM used the island to film the Pitcairn Island scenes of Mutiny on the Bounty in 1935. The original story of this family, [b:The Legendary King of San Miguel] , was written by the wife in 1974, and one of the daughters also wrote a memoir; both were used by Ford as source material.
San Miguel is now a National Park.
This was an ARC from Penguin via Goodreads Giveaway.