03 April 2007

Together Alone

Oh good, a book I've finished somewhat recently.
Together Alone is a fascinating book, and although it's very hard to find (you could always borrow my copy, of course) it is certainly worth looking for. Ron Falconer, the author, spent several years wandering about the South Pacific in his own handbuilt boat, and, together with his wife and two children (and cat and dog) decided to move to a tiny uninhabited island far outside the usual sea lanes. And he actually did it. This is the story.

The island was Caroline, in the far southeastern corner of Kiribati--the very same Kiribati J. Maarten Troost wrote about in the far funnier (but entirely different) The Sex Lives of Cannibals. But this is a far different place from the Tarawa atoll Troost and his wife called home. Caroline supported small populations in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, but by the time the Falconers arrived at the atoll in 1987 it had not seen human habitation for almost 50 years.

Into this paradise the Falconers brought only those things they needed to survive, and they managed to do so for nearly four years. During that time they relied upon annual trips to French Polynesia and occasional visits from passing yachters for whatever they couldn't produce themselves. Over the years they built a fully-functioning settlement.

Falconer's goal was never to achieve total self-sufficiency. It was to achieve isolation. He went there to think big thoughts about society and man's place in the world. Whether he found what he was looking for you can never be sure. Falconer digresses into introspection only occasionally, usually in the form of a conversation with his wife (conversations I assume are mostly made-up and intended just to get the point across), and although you can tell he's doing a lot of thinking about man's impact on the world, for whatever reason he leaves a lot of his thinking off the pages of the book. Perhaps he prefers it that way.

Smittygirl read the book before I did (or at any rate read it after I'd read about 60 pages) and occasionally had to put the thing down and read something else out of frustration with Falconer's occasional self-reverence. Yes, that's the word I was looking for--not self-reference. Falconer does seem to think he was on the verge of--or perhaps right in the thick of--creating a new way of life for all humanity, and he certainly has a bit of an ego. I didn't find it as annoying as she did but then I was also expecting it.

The book is written in the present tense, which I found a bit jarring at times given that the thing wasn't published until 2004, thirteen years after the family left the island.

The Falconers wanted to stay on Caroline as caretakers, but they were evicted by the Kiribati government at the behest of a new leaseholder who wanted to build a casino and other things on the island. Falconer's description of the end of their idyll is sometimes a bit wrenching; of course Falconer may make the family out to be better than they were (it's his book after all), but certainly it seems hard to imagine the family as "undesirables," especially on an otherwise uninhabited island. Given that the leaseholder's plans for development never took off it seems especially unjust that the Falconers were forced to leave.

So the ending's a bit of a downer. Bummer. It's still a really great read. Who hasn't dreamed of running away to some deserted isle to survive by your wits for a while? Well, okay, but who hasn't dreamed of just getting away from it all for a while, getting back to where what matters is a roof and enough to eat and beyond that you're free to do as you please? Ron Falconer and his family actually did that. Together Alone is definitely worth a read.

1 comment:

Ken Boche said...

When I sailed from French Polynesia to Hawaii, we stopped and visited Caroline Atoll and the Falconers for 3 days. I would like to contact them if anyone knows how to do so, I would be most appreciative. I am named in the acknowledgements section with Jo and Aileen aboard "Shanakie." (All names spelled as in the book.) My email address is kenboche@yahoo.com.