Click here to read reviewer Andi Diehn's take on Snow Island.
Katherine Towler’s Snow Island is such a simple story that maybe it shouldn’t be as successful as it is. A coming of age story said at the dawn of World War II, Snow Island covers relatively familiar territory: young girl becomes an adult in the face of great tragedy.
The details this time around also are relatively stock – the girl, Alice, lives on Snow Island, a place so small that she is one of only three teenagers in town during the off-season. Her father has died in a fishing accident, leaving her mother weak, lost, and incapable of keeping the family – and the store she runs on the island – together. The responsibility falls to Alice, who turns out to be a rather competent businesswoman for a 16-year-old girl. She develops a relationship with the island’s 26-year-old lighthouse keeper, which, because of the difference in their ages, we know can only end badly.
Her story runs parallel with that of George, a middle-aged World War II veteran who has entered into island lore after returning from battle to find his beloved aunts, his only family, dead under bizarre and horrifying circumstances. Though Alice dominates the story, her experiences occasionally overlap with George’s, particularly when she rescues him after an ill-advised boating trip.
Despite the relative simplicity of the story, Towler’s novel works because Alice and George are believable and interesting characters. She is particular adept at showing how people – particularly teenage girls – may be struck by the enormous tragedy of an incident like the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but still remain wrapped up in the details of their own lives. Yes, many have died and war is imminent, but there’s still a store to run, classes at the schoolhouse, and the irresistible lure of the older lighthouse keeper.
George in particular never quite emerges from the cocoon of his personal suffering long enough to grasp the situation going on in the world – for him, life in peacetime has brought more tragedy than life in war.
Some elements of the story are predictable, but Towler still manages to make us care about these characters. Perhaps she is helped by the current climate of world events. The characters in the book existed decades ago, but they face some of the same struggles Americans face now – the possibility of war, the very real chance of losing loved ones, and a sense of helplessness in the face of it all. And all people, no matter the time or place, suffer loss and broken hearts. The accessibility of the characters and their feelings makes Snow Island compelling and engrossing. She may deal with familiar subject matter, but she handles it well and engages the reader.