I have to admit that I’ve always found Easter Island somewhat fascinating. Sure, there are locales that sound more glamorous, exotic or exciting. But Easter Island, with its huge, almost inexplicable stone statues – many in the shape of huge faces – is the most mysterious. It seems strange, almost enchanted.
And yet, in Jo Anne Van Tilburg’s Among Stone Giants, the bizarrely beautiful Easter Island gets upstaged by, of all things, an English Quaker woman with a latent mental illness and a strong sense of adventure. Tilburg’s book chronicles the real-life expedition of Katherine Pease Routledge to Easter Island in the early part of the 20th century.
Born in 1866, Katherine was the black sheep of her staid Victorian-Quaker family, always longing for adventure, much to her mother’s chagrin. However, the family had other skeletons in its closet, including schizophrenia. The disease claimed Katherine’s brother Harold, whom the family spent many years trying to protect, until an assault on his wife led him to be committed indefinitely.
Katherine also suffered from signs of the disease in her youth, and it would claim her later in life. With all this going on at home, even a voyage to a place as intriguing as Easter Island seems like a bit of an interruption.
Still, Van Tilburg’s obvious passion for the Island (she is an archaeologist who has studied the island for nearly two decades) comes through, and there are some interesting stories in here about the expedition, including the tumultuous relationship between Katherine’s expedition group (which also included her husband, William Scoresby Routledge) and the Easter Island natives. Most interesting is Katherine’s budding friendship with a native man named Juan Tepano, who acted as a guide and occasional interpreter (although neither he nor Katherine knew the other’s language very well) during her two-year stay.
But the focal point of Among Stone Giants is Katherine herself and her own strange, exciting, and ultimately sad life. Her troubled mind, wandering soul and complicated heart make for compelling reading on their own, so much so that even one of the most fascinating places on earth seems almost like an afterthought. Go figure.