An Island In My Home State

Now that I’m so close to finishing the 2016 Reading Challenge, I’ve decided to use just one category per book from now on. The Light on the Island, by Helene Glidden, so perfectly fits two categories, however, that I’m going to use both categories for this one book. (Maybe one category will be re-used for a bonus round later.)

Patos Island is the northernmost island of the San Juan Islands, here in Washington. It’s a few miles north of Orcas Island, and about a mile east of the Canadian border. The 207 acre island is now a State Park, accessible only by boat.

“Patos” is Spanish for “Ducks”.

Light on the IslandThe Light on the Island: Tales of A Lighthouse Keeper’s Family in the San Juan Islands was published in 1951, and then republished for its 50th anniversary in 2001. Helene “Angie” Glidden was born in 1900. Her father was the Patos Island Lighthouse keeper from 1905 to 1913. This book is her recollections of that time.

Angie’s father was an immigrant from France. He’d worked as a logger, and was a veteran lighthouse keeper. (Angie was born in the New Dungeness Lighthouse.) Papa swore constantly, and insisted that he never swore.

Angie’s mother kept busy with their 13 children. (I suppose it’s typical of the era that we don’t learn much of Mama’s life outside of the family.)

Angie was the seventh of the thirteen children.

Mary, the eldest daughter, lived in the other half of the island’s duplex with her husband Al, a former military chaplain. Al served as the assistant lighthouse keeper.

The three youngest children died of smallpox in the early years on the island. Another child died of appendicitis. Angie came close to dying a few times.

Even though the island is remote, the LaBrege family was not entirely isolated. A historian lived in a cabin on the other side of the island. A fisherman named Billy Coutts visited the island frequently and became a family friend. (Billy took the family to an elegant Queen’s Birthday ball at the resort on Mayne Island, in Canada.) An old friend of Papa’s, Colonel Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt visited the family at least twice. Tourists would sometimes visit Patos Island from Seattle or Bellingham. (Papa would be especially pleased if those tourists were “pretty girls”.) A retired lighthouse keeper who lived on Orcas Island would help out when Papa was ill or away.

God visited Angie frequently on Patos Island. She didn’t like him very much.

Patos Island was a good hiding spot for opium smugglers, because of its remoteness, its dense woods, and its proximity to Canada. (Papa’s longtime dream was to catch the most notorious smuggler, Spanish John, collect the reward, and not have to work on that “god-damned island”.) The Coast Guard would sometimes visit the island, looking for those smugglers.

A government ship regularly brought supplies for the lighthouse, along with news from the outside world, but buying groceries meant rowing 25 miles across the frigid and turbulent Strait of Georgia to Bellingham.

The Light on the Island is a wonderful book, well-written, and full of tragedy, happiness, romance, adventure, and danger. It is nicely illustrated with maps and vintage photographs.

The postscript, written for the 50th Anniversary Edition by Michael McCloskey, asks an interesting question: How much of this book is true? After all, the author was a 5-year-old with an active imagination when the story began. (To be honest, the final chapter felt rather contrived to me.) Well, names were changed. (The family name was Durgan, not LaBrege, for one thing.) But historical records confirm that most of the book is believable, at least. A reclusive historian named E.B. Blanchard did live on the east side of the island. Teddy Roosevelt did visit Puget Sound during the years the book says he did, and it’s entirely possible that he visited an old friend while he was in the area.

Helene Glidden wrote The Light on the Island as a gift for her children, and was persuaded to publish it. She wrote one other book – Pacific Coast Seafood Chef – excerpts of which are included in the appendix, before fading into obscurity.

  • A book set in your home state
  • A book that takes place on an island


3 thoughts on “An Island In My Home State

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