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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch


In this issue:


Laura Haywood reviews the reissue of a cult favorite: in Islandia, Austin Tappen Wright has created a completely imaginary locale, one with customs that are alien to both his own fictional character and the reader.

And Consider This

Two websites, one that focuses on the genre of alternate histories and 'what ifs,' as in "What if the Confederacy won the American Civil War" and Stephen Sondheim's theatrical site.


Austin Tappen Wright
Overlook Press

When his children were little, attorney Austin Tappen Wright used to tell them bedtime stories about a fictional country called Islandia. When Wright died, his family discovered that he hadn't just told them the stories; he'd written them down. There were thousands of pages of manuscript, along with papers on such things as the geography, the history, the language, and the myths of Islandia. Wright's wife and daughter edited the papers, producing a thousand-plus-page novel that became something of a cult favorite.

For some years, the novel was out of print and, if you could find a copy in a used-book store, it was likely to be priced in the $100-plus range. But now Overlook Press has reissued the book for $24.05, and Amazon is selling it for $15.37.

In most fiction, the author creates people and events that transpire in a world familiar to the reader. Wright opens his book in a more-or-less familiar setting: Harvard in 1901. There, John Lang, a freshman, meets Dorn, another freshman, who is from Islandia. The two young men become friends and, in the course of that friendship, Dorn teaches John Islandian. When, a few years later, Islandia abandons enough of its pure isolationist principles to accept consuls from other countries, John is one of the few Americans who can speak the language. With the help of some well-placed family members, John is appointed consul and goes to Islandia. It is then that Wright shows the range of his creativity; in Islandia, he has created a completely fictional locale, one with customs that are alien to John Lang and the reader.

Immediately, Lang is thrown into conflict. The Mora party, in power when he arrives, is seeking to bring Islandia into the world community. The Dorn party prefers to retain the old ways, which include a deep suspicion of foreigners. If John Lang is to remain as consul, he should support the Mora party, but his friendship with Dorn makes that a difficult choice. In the course of this sprawling but engrossing novel, several plot lines emerge. The first is Lang's career in Islandia and the politics of the country. But there is also a love story Lang falls in love with his friend's sister, Dorna, and there's a secret-mission thread relating to border raids by citizens of Islandia's closest neighbor.

There are elements in the book that will disturb the modern reader, especially racism the raiding parties are from a black race and the structure of the society, which is feudal one is born into a position one can't readily escape. But the characters are beautifully drawn particularly the women. It is fascinating to watch Wright, who died in 1931, portraying strong, independent women.

And you will encounter more than a few ideas in Islandia that are worth considering.

Islandia is perfect for readers who like to settle into a book that takes more than a few days to read. It will take you to a place you've never visited and can never see any other way than by reading the book.

And Consider This>>


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