Desert Island Picks

Surviving ParadiseI’ll start by saying that I’ve never been on the ocean, nor over it–I’ve waded into it, but I don’t think that really counts.  On top of that, I’m actually afraid of the idea of the ocean; I’m not a great swimmer, and the idea of hundreds of metres of water between me and the bottom scares the daylights out of me.  So it’s maybe surprising that I really enjoy books about remote islands–the remoter the better.  I have a dream of visiting Saint Helena in the South Atlantic, and read a great book this year (Curious Little World by Rex Bartlett) about a Canadian couple who went my dream one better and actually moved to Saint Helena from Winnipeg.

Peter Rudiak-Gould, author of Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island, had an entirely different motive when he moved to Ujae in the Marshall Islands, situated halfway between the Philippines and Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean.  He went to teach English for a year on this remote island in a remote archipelago which is a protectorate of the United States.  As the only foreigner on an island whose nearest neighbour is 30 miles away, Rudiak-Gould faced special challenges.

The author was only twenty-one when he landed on Ujae for the first time, committed to spending a year there teaching English to students in one of the worst schools in one of the worst educational systems in the entire Pacific.  He not only faced the challenges of teaching children who were largely unmotivated, but parents who didn’t seem to care that much about education either.  Outside of school, he faced a culture very different from his own, seeming to treat its children with a disregard that was shocking to him.  It was far removed from the tropical paradise he had imagined when he signed up to teach there, and the language barrier, food, lodgings, and climate all challenge him greatly.

Rudiak-Gould writes well–passionately and intellectually–about his experiences and frustrations, and comes to understand his new home to a degree which seemed impossible at the start, although ultimately he realizes the island and its culture are too different from his own for him to become truly at-home there.  Like the best travel literature, Surviving Paradise teaches us as much about our own culture as about the foreign culture within which the book immerses us.

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