Reviews and comments.

Review of the book: Return to Sable

By Rita Glen


It says on the back cover that Jill Martin was inspired to write Return to Sable after reading through the old letters and memorabilia of her aunt Trixie Bouteillier, who grew up on Sable Island at the turn of the 20th century.  That rich primary source material really shines in the details of this novel.  The setting of Sable Island is virtually another character within the book and readers come away with a clear sense of what it was like to live in that unique place.

Perhaps all that primary material is also why Trixie is such a strong and memorable character.  The reader can’t help but feel the reality of living on remote Sable Island at the turn of the century and also the harsh reality of growing up female in that day and age.  The daughter of R.J. Bouteillier, the superintendent of Sable Island, Trixie grows up in an unusual environment that gives her much more freedom than that of the average woman of the day.  Trix is a confident young woman, an able photographer, a capable rider and outdoorswoman but as she matures, she comes up against the limitations of gender in her time.  She watches as her brothers head off the island to their chosen careers while she stays behind in her father’s household, waiting for events to take her into adulthood.

The novel portrays a very realistic picture of life in a bygone time in a very isolated place. Trixie is more independent and outspoken than the usual one-dimensional novel portrayal of women of the time, and, most refreshingly, Ms. Martin also doesn’t fall into the trap of projecting modern views onto her character. Trix is a believable woman of the day as well as a strong protagonist, giving us a glimpse into the real women who lived within narrower roles but were not without opinions or ideas. They were not the obedient, pallid characters readers imagine them to be. Trix loves deeply but will not be rushed into a decision; she wants to enter that new adventure but it must be on her terms.  I was pleased that the ending doesn’t fudge for the sake of romance: Trixie is too strong a character for a conventional ending.

We need more books that celebrate the individual stories that make up history.  I learned a lot about Sable Island, wireless operators, shipwrecks and family life in the 1900s.  Knowing that these small details come from primary documents of the Bouteillier family added a lot to the book for me. It felt like I was entering that world and living there with them during a very exciting time. The barren, remote island was also full of good times and socializing, self-made events that bound the inhabitants together. Most of all, Sable Island itself lives and breathes throughout the book, changing with the weather and leaving its stamp on everyone who passes through. I hated to leave the island at the end of the book as much as Trix did!

Rita Glen, educator


Review of the book: Return to Sable

By Henry Bradford


Return to Sable is the story of a family who lived more than a century ago on remote Sable Island, a thin sliver of sand in the North Atlantic, about twenty-five miles long, a mile wide at best, and one hundred miles east of Nova Scotia… The novel paints a detailed picture of life far from urban amenities… It was a full life, and the Bouteillier family developed a strong bond to the wild and beautiful island. The sons went away when they grew up, but the daughter Beatrice remained until her mid-twenties. In spite of the isolation, she didn’t lack romance in her life. She met a succession of single wireless operators stationed there on a rotational basis by the Marconi Company, and on such a lonely outpost she was the star attraction. The story, drawn from records, letters, and photographs, describes life on the island in detail, skilfully woven together by the author’s imagination and familiarity with the Bouteillier family to whom she is related. In addition to the family story, the reader gets a feel for life in a bygone era, family bonds, hardships, romance in Victorian times, and loyalty and devotion to duty.



Comment: Return to Sable

By Cindy Clancey, UNB


Hello Jill. I just finished reading "Return to Sable" and wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed reading about your family's experience. My family also has a connection to Sable Island as we lived at the West Light in the early 60's while my father was employed there as an electrician. I have always had a fascination with the "Old Main Station" as we knew it. I have read about your family and saw pictures in the museum etc but I always wondered who these people were and what was their life like on Sable during those critical years of the life saving station. During our stay the "Old Main Station "was in ruins but it was still standing. I will look at those photos a bit differently now. Thank you for sharing this wonderful insight. Cindy Clancey UNB

Review: Return to Sable

By Daryl Zoellner, Montreal Quebec


Return to Sable put me right on the island and reminded me of the unchangeable forces of winds and waves, head and heart.  Duty and responsibility for human life (the second part of the two greatest commandments) were emphasized in their historical context of family and work life. Vocabulary, image creation and use of verbs were very good, if not exceptional. Dialogue and description were well suited to the people and places. You let the characters describe their situation and you don't interfere although your knowledge is only partial knowledge according to the actual events. Thank you for this gift to Canadian history.

Review: Sable Island in Black and White

By Northern Mariner


Sailors usually steer clear of Sable Island.  That has not always been possible.  The illustration on page 28 of this book, Simon McDonald's 1890 shipwreck map, annotated in 1911 by Robert Jarvis Bouteillier, then the Superintendant of Sable Island, makes the point.  At least 350 vessels are now known to have come to grief there since the sixteenth century.  Reference to the internet will reveal various accounts that enlarge upon these tragedies, but what this book does, much more effectively than the internet, is to chronicle the experiences of a family living permanently on the island, Between 1890 and 1919, while the Bouteillier family was growing up, Dr. J. Dwight of the American Ornithological Society came to the island in 1898 to study bird life. Mr. Bouteillier's eldest daughter, Sarah Beatrice (Trixie) "...begged her father to build a small darkroom for her off the big kitchen... with just enough room for a small table, a shelf for her chemicals, and a rope to hang the photographs from...". She then started preserving Dr. Dwight's photographs.  In 1901, Alexander Graham Bell, who first came to the island in 1898 searching for friends who had been among the victims of the ship La Burgoyne, driven on to the shoals surrounding the island, gave her a Brownie camera with which she preserved her own countless images and memories.  Coincidentally, W.E. Saunders of the Ornithological Society was also visiting the island that summer (he published an article about this in The Auk, the society's journal) and Trixie may well have printed some of his photographs as well.  In 1910, as she was approaching her thirtieth birthday, she left Sable Island for good.  Her great niece, Jill, who would hear all Trixie's stories about Sable Island, has now preserved and published a wide selection of the photographs. Remarkable illustrations, most of them from Trixie's own camera, are reproduced on virtually every page of the book.  The accompanying narrative is particularly effective.  A tintype studio picture of Trixie, aged five, and her brother Dick, aged three, taken before the family moved to Sable Island, helps to put the book in proper context.

Subsequent photographs bring to life the activities of the family, the lifesaving crews under Mr. Bouteillier's direction, the many visitors who had enough imagination and confidence to venture out to the island, and the survivors of shipwrecks who, from time to time, found themselves guests of the Bouteillier family until they could be transported to the mainland. Families whose living depends upon the sea accept danger and hardship, something that was especially true in the days before radar and other modern aids to navigation. Perhaps the great virtue of this book is that it reveals so well circumstances of the time.  Jill Martin Bouteillier has produced a wonderful record of the personalities who lay behind a truly astonishing record of lifesaving.  She shows how, responsible as he was for the effective work carried out on Sable Island during these years, R.J. Bouteillier was a strong, calm man of 6' 3" who filled any room he entered. “For almost thirty years, Bouteillier acted on behalf of the Government of Nova Scotia as Sable Island's doctor, lawmaker, dispenser of stores, minister and, most importantly, head of lifesaving.” Thanks to Dorothea Dix, the American philanthropist who had visited the island in 1853, lifesaving measures had long been instituted, and they provided the foundation on which Robert Bouteillier was able to build.  He instituted telephones and cables to link the lifesaving

stations, and trained the lifesaving crews.  And he established the circumstances in which gardening, domestic life, school, hunting, famous visitors, farming, entertainment and leisure, meteorology, among many other activities could thrive.  Under his direction the Sable Island horses not only survived, but were put to good uses. Sable Island is presented in this book in all its complexity.  In my opinion, it is a wonderful contribution to maritime literature.  It deserves a wide audience.


W.A.B. Douglas Ottawa, Ontario