Complicated Simplicity: A Review

by Sarah Davison

Joy Davis (2019). Complicated Simplicity: Island Life in the Pacific Northwest. 229pp. Victoria BC: Heritage House Publishing Company. ISBN: 978-1-77203-270-3. $22.95 CAD

Complicated Simplicity brings to the fore the paradox of island living in the Pacific Northwest archipelagos through the eyes of real people and their lived experiences, including those of her parents during her own childhood on Bath Island. Before immersing the reader into the diverse trials, tribulations and delights of living on a small island, Davis takes them on a fascinating journey of what islands are all about, surveying the idea of island as we would a skipping rock to assess its qualities ahead of tossing it into the sea to joyfully skim and skip across the incoming tide. From the perspectives of poets, writers, sociologists, scientists and more, Davis paints a dynamic landscape and constructs an island lexicon that breathes life into the notion of islandness for the most inexperienced of us. She offers a peek into the academic world of nissology while echoing themes of isolation and survival that islands in literature have often evoked. She initiates the novice scholar with terms such as enisling, islanded, and islomane, the latter who is said to have “a rare affliction of spirit” (Lawrence Durell). It is this affliction that has captured Davis’ imagination and which she seeks to expose, both in form of personal memoir and phenomenological study, in the course of the book.

Joy Davis writes from first-hand experience and, in part, presents Complicated Simplicity as an ode to her sailing-loving parents who in 1962 when she was 10 made the decision to buy Bath Island, near Gabriola. The interviews conducted with island settlers over two summers as research for the book appeared to have enriched Davis’ appreciation for the bravery, ingenuity and skill of her parents’ occupation with putting down island roots while maintaining a healthy family life. In the seven chapters that follow, Davis’ personal reflections are interspersed together with those of her interviewees as bioluminescence in night waters, throwing a bright light on the accounts of mounting challenges and the seemingly overwhelming circumstances of island living. From choosing the right island and building site to managing the need for food, water, fuel; from navigating the dangers of sea logs and quick turns of weather to developing self-sufficiency, Davis touches on a myriad of considerations that are essential to finding the right individual balance for succeeding at small island life in the Pacific Northwest.

In addition to capturing the experiences of individuals from the San Juan Islands, Gulf Islands, Discovery Islands, Broughton Archipelago as well as some locations on the west side of Vancouver island, Davis amplifies her own findings with the experiences recorded in the writings and memoirs of other island dwellers like Celia Thaxter (Maine); John Fowles (Isles of Scilly); David Conover (Wallace Island) and Joy Orth (Stikine River Estuary) among others. The inclusion of these stories in many cases link the Pacific Northwest islands to other cold water islands across the globe as unique natural environments that need to be properly stewarded. As a budding scholar interested in the year-round sustainability of cold-water island states, I made many connections to Maritime island living, where need for resilience, sense of isolation, strong weather patterns and land-water biodiversity are distinguishing characteristics.

Small islands in the Pacific Northwest are undeniably defined by their sea surroundings and Davis appropriately addresses this feature throughout the book. She aptly expounds the role of the weather and sea in these cold-water islands, no doubt a sensitivity developed from many years of operating Molly, a clinker-built vessel, to and from Silva Bay with her sister as part of the daily trek to school. With no cell phone to check in, Davis’ mom had to wait until early evening to know her daughters were safe. Learning to read the weather and its shifts and its subsequent impact on the sea was essential to overall satisfaction of island living for the interviewees. Many stories were shared of inexperience, wharfs turning upside down or disappearing, logs appearing suddenly in the boat’s path, seafoam covering dwellings, supplies being loaded and unloaded, and passages being planned and commonly delayed. Weather and sea determined positioning of homes, moorings and other structures; sourcing of food; and wayfinding. And these experiences were intensified for those islanders who chose islands not serviced by ferries. Davis takes time to explore the additional demands on time, resources and well-being which results from further remote island living. Through her stories, Davis dispels myths about island time, leisure, and recreation and at the same time promulgates a deep love for the natural world, healing solitude and independence. For Davis, her parents and her interviewees, true enjoyment in island living came in learning to live in peace with nature, growing more self-sufficient and developing resilience in the face of the unexpected.

In addition to contributing to the literature on what it means to be an islander, Davis has captured a time in history where a mostly homogenous population of people were disenchanted with city life and the way of civilization and, consequently, attracted to the promised difference of island living. As a result, there is little attention to gender differences (the creation of the Lady’s Skiff Club is an exception) and diversity. There is an intentional inclusion of First Nations which could perhaps be a more significant theme in future should Davis pursue a study of Haida Gwaii, as indicated in a recent interview. With today’s technologies and new products, life as described by Davis may now be easier, making this book all the more pertinent to capturing this way of life. Davis writes well about a topic that is very personal to her and about which she is very knowledgeable. This book will be a particular reading pleasure for those who are connected to the area or who love islands.