Coastal life shows Gertrude Swann a captivating world that has been waiting for her

Michaeline Chance-Reay

By A Contributor

When you think of the edges of our North American earth, you envision the oceans and in the 19th century that meant lighthouses.

They were necessary and are still vital in all areas of the world. In the United States structures are now automated and operated by the Coast Guard. Signifying safety, they also spoke of a remoteness that required a certain kind of person to live and work in such seclusion. Curmudgeonly former fisherman?

The anti-social personality disordered? Hermits? Probably all of the above at one time. The position was usually held by a male but often a married one, who made it a family affair with unpaid workers.

Schwarz tell the story of three such families at one location - California. She explores the era, myriad duties and creative aspects of the keepers jobs, early marine science, adventure, romance and mystery through the eyes of the person who lasted the longest at this posting, Gertrude Swann.

Although few and far between, there were a number of notable female keepers.

Gertrude Swann, a college educated daughter of affluent German parents from Wisconsin, accompanies her novice inventor spouse to his first position as an assistant lighthouse keeper.

He is happy to go to a place where he expects to have the privacy in which to develop his ideas.

The bride was immediately busy with her duties as the unofficial assistant to the assistant but intellectual curiosity drew her, unexpectedly, into the wonders of marine biology prevalent at their site.

The spectrum of creatures is as diverse as the females on the island.

She is drawn into the life of the keeper’s family as the women and girls collect whatever gifts the sea deposits, the most valuable of which is the discovery of her life’s work and connection to place that philosophers have both debated and lauded for centuries.

Contemporary graduates will resonate with the reality of becoming new selves when their careers take them to different parts of the world.

After seeing a sea urchin divided in two will grow into two separate urchins, Swann saw the wonder as a metaphor for her life’s journey saying, “I conceived of myself as a being that had been severed in two when I’d left the place that had formed me and come to this world where so little was familiar.

I was beginning to feel filaments starting to grow from the half that remained and I sensed I was adapting and becoming whole again.”

In addition to becoming whole again, she begins to appreciate the importance of the interconnectedness vital to harmonious and productive communities, making the novel seem somewhat like a parable. In a speculative moment she says,

“My hours of gazing into the tide pools have made me think of these tiny bodies of water as simplified versions of the world at large and so as convenient opportunities to examine the ways in which each species and perhaps each individual organism affect the others with which it shares its limited world.”

The author, like her heroine, was raised in Wisconsin and now lives in California.

A Yale graduate, she taught high school English before becoming a full-time writer.

Her most notable work thus far has been the highly acclaimed, “Drowning Ruth.”

Other lighthouse related works I have enjoyed are “The Lighthouse Stevensons: The Extraordinary Story of the Building of the Scottish Lighthouses by the Ancestors of Robert Louis Stevenson” by Bella Bathurst and “The Keeper of Lime Rock,” the inspiring biography of Ida Lewis, winner of the U.S. Government’s Gold Lifesaving Medal by Lenore Skomal. 

If you prefer fiction, there is “The Light Between Oceans” by M.L. Stedman, about a 1918 Australian keeper and his wife who discover a baby washed up upon their shore and Kathleen Ernst’s “The Light Keeper’s Legacy,”the first in a mystery series featuring Chloe Ellefson, a contemporary, Wisconsin museum curator. In the film category,” Portrait of Jenny,” the 1948 black and white classic romantic thriller starring Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotton should appeal to old movies buffs. 

Michaeline Chance-Reay is a K-State emeritus faculty member and a Manhattan resident.

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