Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg
We’ve all heard the expression “you can’t judge a book by its cover”. And we all know that though covers may not matter so much for the big name well-known authors, they often do entice us to pick up a book by an author we’ve never heard of because the cover attracts us. That was the case for me with Island Of Wings by Karin Altenberg. The cover shows a woman, looking out to sea across rocks, through the fog, to a ship in the distance. I discovered the book is set in St. Kilda in the early to mid 1800s and is a wonderful novel I might never have read if not for the cover.
St. Kilda is the westernmost island of the Outer Hebrides – way out there. Very isolated now and much more so in the time in which this novel is set.
A young minister, Neil MacKenzie and his wife, Lizzie, arrive on St. Kilda in the summer of 1830, sent by the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge in an effort to bring Christianity to the islanders. Isolated as they are at such distance from Scotland, the residents of the islands live with a variety of ancient superstitions and beliefs. The people of St. Kida live in filth that is unimaginable to us now – and the infant mortality rate is heart-breakingly high as most babies die within a week of birth. Rev. Mackenzie is sincerely zealous and will let nothing stand in his way – he is determined to bring these backward peasants into the fold.
Within days of her marriage Lizzie MacKenzie leaves her family behind to go to this place. We can only imagine her loneliness – not only is she far from all she has known, she is also isolated by language as the residents speak only Gaelic and she cannot communicate with them. For Lizzie her husband, her home, and eventually her children are the centre of her life.
Both Neil and Lizzie come to love the island itself, the landscape and the sea. Rev. We learn that Neil MacKenzie possesses a secret - and deep guilt – for a past tragedy and feels he may find redemption by bringing Christianity to the islands residents. What he does, of course, is tragically destroy their culture, even though their physical well-being may have improved.
Apart from a few military personnel, conservation workers and scientists, St. Kilda is now uninhabited. The island was evacuated in 1930, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, important for its natural and cultural significance, so well told in Island of Wings.