The Isle is Full of Noises

The Manitou old steamboat

Alistair MacLeod’s Island is one of my favourite books of short stories. When I read James Wood’s Guardian review of MacLeod’s collection, his reference to the Shakespearean line “the isle is full of noises” brought to mind the noises in the form of voices of people whose stories I drew upon when writing The Will. These stories, carried across the water or along a railway line together with steamer trunks brimming with personal histories, arrived from two separate islands: Eagle Island located in the centre of Lake Winnipegosis, Manitoba and The Isle of Islay, the southernmost of the Western Hebrides off the coast of Scotland.

an old letter from Gayle Nemeth's grandmother, Catherine

One of the items found in one of those trunks was a letter that Margaret’s mother, Catherine, wrote in 1920 in the form of a diary the last winter they were on Eagle Island. The letter is a mini tome of information—almost a short story in itself— about their life then and a valuable resource of detail that I was able to use for the novel. In spite of the pleasurable memories that my grandmother Margaret carried with her of her childhood there, the letter also offered a window into the challenges of living in such isolation for such a length of time in such extreme weather with such limited resources compared to the luxuries we enjoy now.

Each fall, Catherine and her family boarded a steamboat such as The Manitou docked at the town of Winnipegosis, located on the south end of the lake.

They, along with others who lived on neighbouring islands, made their annual trip up to Eagle Island for the winter months of ice fishing. There was often a crowd from town down at the dock to send the families off with well wishes.

Ice fishing on a frozen lake with a horse and sleigh

Margaret’s father, Bill Mapes, was the captain of The Manitou. He would join his family when the Manitou’s crew dropped him off on the island on their last run of the season. But the winter of 1920 was an exception and, instead, Bill had set out ahead of the rest of his family to begin a new job and have a home waiting for them in the Qu’Appelle Valley:

Oct 24 1920 My Dearest Husband we are settled we got the camp moved and also the smoking camp moved and the stall fixed in it we have the 12 little chickens yet thay are fine… we are looking for the Manitou Back this way again but she isn’t coming.

Along with a horse for pulling the sleigh on the ice when working with the nets and a cow for milk and butter, Catherine brought along a supply of chickens. Many entries in her letter shows how she both fretted over and delighted in those chickens:

Nov 17 Chickens fine the red hen has to be carried up to the stable she walks a head of you so you have to pick her up.

Wood was their only source of heat so it was a constant chore to ensure they had enough in supply:

Nov 9  it is real cold it is nearly frozen a cros thay are corking thay halled home one of the trees they cut it is too feet and harf through the other one is 3 feet through.

Each time I read this letter, I witness Catherine’s good-natured battle with the mice. I sense her concern about the thickness of the ice to enable the long train of freight sleighs to travel up the length of the lake to collect the fish and take them back down to the town for processing.

Train of freight sleights in the snow carrying supplies

I feel her struggle with the weather and her longing to be with her husband again:

Nov 14 say it is a long lonsom day say the mice is a thick as hairs on a dogs Back alice has a buffalow mouse in a can for a pet… Chickens are fine.

Nov 20 well it snowed havy all night But is not snowing now it is dull… I woulden come up the lake alone for all the money in the world.

Nov 21 I don’t think we’ll see the teams this year very early as there is so much snow the white owl is here,

 Dec 11 Carl says it has got to Do some freasing for the teams to get hear.

In The Will, Addie wanted to return to her life on Eagle Island. My grandmother Margaret often talked about her days on Lake Winnipegosis as some of the happiest she could remember. She often spoke about the freedom she and her sister, Mary, enjoyed there. Catherine’s letter and my grandmother’s anecdotes of her life on Eagle made me want to visit the island myself, almost as an intention of returning for my grandmother’s sake.

Margaret as a girl on Eagle Island with 2 sled dogs

As with Addie in The Will, the place beckoned to me. I was transfixed with the idea of meeting it and knowing it even a little as my grandmother had. Where did the steamboat dock when it let my grandmother off in the fall with their supplies for the winter ahead? What did the house that Margaret’s father built look like? Was there even a house still remaining?

So, my husband, Danny, and I chartered a Cessna 185 float plane out of Le Pas and flew the fifty odd miles down the length of Lake Winnipegosis to its midpoint where Eagle Island was located. Looking down, as we arrived overtop of Eagle, I saw that the island was almost as long as it was wide, measuring about one by one and a half miles. Thick with overgrowth, we flew over the golds and reds covering the island that autumn. I remember the sensation and the sound of the plane’s floats rubbing up onto that limestone shore, the feel of my shoes crunching over the thick shore bank that ran phosphorescent along the length of shoreline, so bright it was hard to look at directly in the sunlight. I also remember that we were then confronted with an island of overgrowth and the question as to where we would find the house from there.

The island had been deserted for many years and was thick with trees and giant nettles that stretched up overhead. We separated, and Danny headed over to the west side. I could hear or see nothing of him for several minutes and began to question whether it had been wise to strike out on our own, when I heard him shout, “It’s over here!”

After fighting through the overgrowth in the direction of where I thought Danny’s voice was coming from, I found him. He was standing beside two small structures the size of dog houses. My first thought was that they may have been for the sled dogs that they used to help bring the fish in from the nets. It took a minute to realize that they were the house’s dormers, that the house had collapsed to the ground leaving only the roof and dormers visible, silent reminders of the life that once took place there, its noise suspended amidst the din of bird song.

If you liked reading this post on the inspirations behind The Will, you may also enjoy my next post on my travels through Scotland.

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