Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, The Island Walkers is set in the 1960s in a Canadian town that is the home of Bannerman’s knitting mills, which is also the largest employer in the area. When Bannerman sells out to a textile conglomerate called Intertex, life vastly changes for the town residents employed at the mill.
Central to the story, which is part family saga, is Alf, a mill worker falling in the footsteps of his father. Alf has worked at the mill for many years, and he is next in line for the position of foreman. When Intertex takes over and there is an initial round of layoffs, a union organizer named Boyle comes to town. Boyle’s aim is to start a union for the mill workers, and the Intertex management and executives and the mill workers are fraught with anxiety over Boyle’s efforts. Intertex does not want a union controlling their business, and many of the mill employees are still smarting from a highly unsuccessful strike they participated in back in 1949, which included Alf.
Alf is wary about getting involved in the union effort led by Boyle, and he initially shies Boyle’s attempts to woo him over to the “union side.” In an attempt to impress Intertex management and to ensure his future position as foreman, Alf’s action lead to disastrous consequences that affect him and others in a lasting manner. Alf is married with three children, and as a lower-middle class provider, he is constantly striving to improve his own stake in life while trying to be supportive of his fellow workers, and those two priorities of Alf’s inevitably conflict with each other when Intertex comes to town.
Equally interesting and engrossing is the story of Alf’s two sons: Joe, an intelligent high school teenager slated for university, and Jamie, a young and sensitive boy. Joe falls for a new worldly classmate named Anna, a girl who is mysterious and symbolizes an existence much greater than the small town life he has experienced to date. Meanwhile, Jamie befriends a troubled Indian boy named Billy who is “from the wrong side of the tracks.” Both relationships form a large part of the story with some interesting plot developments (details of which are left for the reader to discover).
The Island Walkers is not an easy read. It is a long book and, overall, it is a morose story – but it is an engrossing and satisfying read. It took me several chapters to get into the “meat” of the book, but my patience was well worth it and I highly recommend this book to fans of literary fiction.