Complicated Simplicity: Island Life in the Pacific Northwest
Review By Nicholas Stanger
October 30, 2020
BC Studies no. 208 Winter 2020/21 | p. 144-145
Complicated Simplicity is a collection of essays, personal and expository, that explore the nature of living on secluded (non-ferry-serviced) islands within the Southwestern part of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest (and further abroad too). The author, Joy Davis, an emeritus scholar at the University of Victoria, curator, and heritage expert, wades into her own island-identity of growing up on Bath Island in the Gulf Islands as a frame to explore people’s relationships with islands. Nissology, or Island Studies, is a recurring academic touchstone throughout the book, helping ground the character-driven story-based descriptions of living remotely within island settings.
Organized into eight chapters that deal with expansive and minute details about island-life and “islandness”, Davis plays with the romanticism and realism of community, island-time, house-building and repairing, sea-travel, and the economy. The “book interweaves the voices of numerous islanders to explore what draws people to islands and to consider what it takes to make successful lives off the ferry grid.”(1) The timbre of this work falls into a collection of recent (and historical) popular and academic ethnographies (print, podcasts, and video) that tell the stories of homesteading settlers and resource characters on the coast of North America. The paradox of Complicated Simplicity explains the physical, emotional, and logistical trials of island-life; while away from urban indulgences, islanders’ days are filled with keeping up the systems for living.
Davis’s description of the variety of experiences in island living presents some interesting insights into building and maintaining life on remote islands, including the challenges of telecommuting for work and school. However, at times this book feels like a “how-to guide” when it refers to the reader as a potential island purchaser. This limits the accessibility of the work intensely, since it is likely the average reader won’t have a chance to ever purchase or live on a secluded island, much less visit one in their lifetime. This writing style also contributes to a sense of property-ownership that upholds a continuing trend in academia: the popular, but often exclusionary orientation of place-based writing. Despite a single Indigenous interviewee from an island off the coast of Tofino, and some basic description of Indigenous history of island life, the settler-colonial storylines of place dominate this book in a way that helps further erasure Indigenous presence. Of course, this book isn’t the only one oriented in this way, and Davis didn’t invent this genre, however the significant effort to tell the story of island-life in the Pacific Northwest could have been used to help us consider the stolen islands that most of these places represent. In what way could a book like this contribute to reconciliation?
I don’t dispute Davis’s last paragraph where she states: “Solitude creates space for greater self-awareness.”(229) I am certain those living on these islands are connected to place in ways that differ from those in an urban, or even ferry-connected setting. Yet, I was left wondering: How might that same self-awareness connect islanders to the cultural history and fight for sovereignty and title of First Nations and Tribes?
Davis, Joy. Complicated Simplicity: Island Life in the Pacific Northwest. Victoria, BC: Heritage House, 2019. 264 pp. $22.95 paper.