Will Poole's Island

Classic tales can–and should–be told and retold. Will Poole's Island, by Tim Weed, feels like one of those stories: comfortable, like something you've owned forever, yet fresh, because you're seeing it with new eyes, against a new backdrop. 

This short, elegantly written book is a coming-of-age adventure about an orphan struggling to find his identity in 17th century New England. Independent-minded Will Poole encounters an elderly Algonquin man in the wilderness outside his settlement, and soon escapes not only its physical boundaries but also the rigid confines of Puritan culture. Squamiset teaches Will to hunt, but, more importantly, makes him aware of the magical possibilities of his connection to nature. The two share a bond that neither fully understands; when together they fall afoul of the law and flee in search of a mystical place, that bond only becomes stronger. 

Will Poole put me in mind of other boys in other places who ran away into the great wide world, searching for their place in it, also casting their lots with a social or cultural Other: Huck Finn, Jim Hawkins, and, most of all, Kim. Their stories had equally strong senses of place, with a similar innocence; Kipling's Kim combined those with a spiritual element. And like Kim, Will Poole's Island ends with a satisfying, ethereal quality.

The writing is lush with description and the attention to detail never flags. Weed attaches great importance to the descriptive aspects of fiction, as he writes in an essay posted on his web site: "Description roots us in a narrative and keeps us there; its capacity to take us back to our species’ primal attachment to the land is powerful medicine that we as writers would be foolish to ignore." This is undoubtedly true. But the description was sometimes a little too rich for my taste. I am sure others will appreciate it more, but at times I felt I needed a bit of a clearing in the forest.

The book takes an interesting approach to the supernatural: it walks a line between fully acknowledging Squamiset's powers as real, and explaining them in rational, psychological terms. I wondered whether a similar approach would work with the Puritans' strong sense of the otherwordly, and what would happen to the story if Weed had tried it. 

(I received an advance copy at a writer's conference in Boston, at which the author led a session on the elements of historical fiction. Will Poole's Island will be released August 15.) 

Patrick D. Joyceessays