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Stranger on a Strange Island: From Main Street to Mayne Island

By Grant Buday

Review By Howard Stewart

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 177 Spring 2013  | p. 196-97

Grant Buday’s slim tome about his transition to life on Mayne Island in the new millennium is my favourite among the small pile of good books about life on the inland sea that I’ve reviewed for BC Studies recently. Yet it is also the one I would be least likely to buy. Luckily, reviewers get free copies of the books that we review (that and the fame that comes with the genre).

In a handful of well-crafted chapters, Buday has nailed much of what it feels like to move from the City to one of the quirky little Islands nearby. His non-fiction snippets of life in the slow lane half way between Vancouver and Victoria are as compelling and faithful as those of lawyer-novelist-islander William Deverell. Buday also offers us a handful of black and white photos from his personal album that nicely complement his diary cum portrait of life on Mayne. His insights into his fellow islanders’ proclivity to take the law into their own hands remind us that the islands, like the sea around them, can appear somewhat lawless to newcomers until they begin to discern the complex local codes of conduct that replace the Crown’s writ. Sometimes, like when an islander jumps off a passing ferry to make sure he doesn’t miss the island softball game, the two codes clash.

But mostly islands like Mayne are peaceful places with competing standards of behaviour set by the many parallel groups who share their bucolic space. Sometimes the clannishness can feel like a bad dream return to high school. Until you remember that there weren’t really that many hobby farmers, eco-warriors, Buddhists, strident lesbians, or tedious old farts at high school. Thank God. Buday captures perfectly the islands’ complex protocol for greetings. He doesn’t go far enough, though, in explaining why this subtle cacophony of signals has evolved. The vigour and style of greeting one receives depend, far more than Buday recognizes, on which of the island’s many subcultures one is seen to represent and how the greeter feels about those kind of people.

Peaceful, except when the boys fire up their chainsaws, which of course they seem to do at the drop of a hat, especially on those magically still fall days. Buday’s musings about the inescapable need for even the greenest islander to eventually embrace the terrifying power and cranky soul of the chainsaw is one of the book’s best bits.

Then, too soon, it is over, ending on an oddly tangential note about a whale-watching trip on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This delightful little book somehow reminded me of William Kotzwinkle’s great but obscure classic, The Fan Man. I fear the obscurity of Buday’s Stranger on a Strange Island will be assured mostly by its excessive brevity in relation to its price. The people most interested in it, like me, are the least likely to shell out over twenty bucks for a seventy-five page book.

Stranger on a Strange Island: From Main Street to Mayne Island
Grant Buday
Vancouver: New Star Books, 2011. No. 19 in the Transmontanus series, 76 pp, $19.00 paper