This book started out a little slow, and the characters were pretty dreadful so I didn’t think I would like this book. However, after the tsunami hit, things got quite a bit more interesting. Phoenix Island by Charlotte Paul is a modern day cross between Robinson Crusoe and a little bit of Lord of the Flies.
I loved that this book was realistic about the nature of its characters. None of them were perfect people, or even good people, but they each brought a different set of skill sets and they managed to work together to survive. The main characters include: Andrew Held (a scientist known for supporting the development of nuclear power), Felicia Held (Andrew’s estranged wife), Carlo (an entertainer hired by Andrew), Donald Campbell (Andrew’s hired assistant, who has a shady past), Diana (a girl hired to help guests), Rolf (Diana’s boyfriend), Warren (a famous sculptor), and Blake & Norma Mansfeld (an upper middle-class married couple from New York). The book showed how the characters grew as people when they are stripped of modern day conveniences and defensive mechanisms. For example, Felicia’s defensive mechanisms were her coiffured looks. Her appearance made her seem unapproachable to some people, like Donald. People like Andrew, Felicia, and Blake and Norma probably would avoid someone like Donald and wouldn’t think twice about Diana and Rolf. However, on the island, they see how the Diana’s background led to her useful skills. On the island, they lose the society-made class barriers.
I love survival stories – I love learning about the edible plants and ways they found substitutes for soap and shampoo. The author must have done a lot of research for this book.
This book, though, is much more than an adventure story. It’s a statement about society. The characters represent a cross section of our society as a whole and how everyone is needed. The book presents a utopian view in that the characters become a family, learning from each other and learning to work together, and they all improve, both in character and physically. The characters become better people when they are a family, willing to open up to each other and to care for each other. The author seems to be making a statement about how, even though we are all so different, we rely on each others’ skill sets to survive. It’s our differences that are our strengths.
The 9 characters deal with crucial issues such as finding water and food, but they also deal with non-life-threatening, though nonetheless essential, issues such as crime and punishment. The way they face the issues help define their society. Will they be forgiving or will they be vengeful? How can they enforce their punishment(s)?
Warning: spoiler ahead.
It probably comes as no surprise that the person who commits the first major crime on the island is Donald. Once the group decides to banish him for 1 month, Donald turns animal-like, threatening to lash out. There are couple crucial moments. The first is, just as he is about to leave the group, when the takes the group’s only knife (his jackknife originally). Andrew explains that all of their personal property were given up to the greater good and the knife was no longer Donald’s. However, Andrew looked at who had the greatest need for the knife – the group or Donald – and felt Donald should be allowed to take the knife, not because it belonged to him but because he had the greatest need for it. This incidence gives an insight to the author’s idea of what contributes to a utopian society. You need leaders who recognize that desperate individuals will do desperate things … and someone who will treat people fairly, looking at the greatest need. The other incident concerning Donald’s punishment comes into play when he flees, leaving behind a small bag of dried foods. The group decides to show leniency and mercy by gathering up the small bag and bringing it to Donald. In addition to the dried foods (which wouldn’t last him for the 30 days he was banished from the others), Rolf adds some fishing hooks so that Donald will have a means of finding more food. This showed that, though they knew that he needed to be punished, they wanted him to survive, to come back to them. Their punishment was a necessity to prevent anarchy and to protect those who might be physically weaker. Their punishment wasn’t spiteful. In fact, during his absence, several members of the group missed Donald, as evidenced when the author described how they remarked upon his empty spot and how they went to the woods to yell a reminder that there were only 6 days left of his exile. Two of the members also went to hunt for the wild dogs in an effort to find and kill the dogs so that Donald would be safer on his own. The group treated Donald as a member of their family. Despite what he did wrong, they still cared about him. The author is telling us that perhaps, if we treated each other as family, our “family” members, even after they have done something wrong, will return and be a contributing member again. Temper your punishments with mercy and caring.
Read the book as an adventure story or read it as the author’s chastisement of our society or read it as a utopian look at what society could be. Just read it.