Summer Reading: A Novel Approach to Marine Protected Areas

August 8, 2014 by

shoreline of american samoa

Maybe it's all those summer reading lists that draw me in every summer to distant places and terrific characters. But it seems like a good time to appreciate some of the many great novels that are set in and around our nation's marine protected areas. Social scientists are now documenting what writers have known for centuries – telling a compelling story is the best way to help people understand and engage in an issue.

Not that these stories preach about marine conservation. Fortunately, these authors know that's not the way to get our attention. Rather, they show us how individuals interact with specific places – and how these places work their way into our memories and hearts.

Here are a few suggestions for summer reading --- we'd love to hear your ideas and comments too.

Swamplandia! book cover

In Swamplandia, Karen Russell tells the story of the Bigtree family, who own and operate Swamplandia, an alligator wresting theme park in the Florida Everglades. The story centers on 12-year old Ava Bigtree, who is struggling to keep the business and family together, as Swamplandia falls on hard times with the death of theme park's star and the family's center --- Ava's mother. The novel is full of quirky characters whose longings for security and connection are all too familiar. It also includes a harrowing boat adventure through the mangrove swamps, and beautiful descriptions of this forbidding country. As Russell says about the book, "For me, the story of the Bigtree family's meteoric descent after their mother's death has always been connected to this larger story of the imperiled Everglades cut off from its headwaters."

when the killing's done book cover

When the Killing's Done by T.C. Boyle is set in Channel Islands National Park and the waters of Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Inspired by the real-life controversy between scientists involved in restoring the park's ecosystem by eradicating introduced species (such as rats) and animal rights activists who want to prevent what they see as immoral killing, the book switches from the lovely and isolated Channel Islands to the contentious public meetings and daily lives of those living on the mainland. Opening with a dramatic shipwreck that will remind readers of 19th century adventures, it goes on to chart the escalating battle between Alma Boyd Takesue, a National Park Service biologist, and Dave LaJoy, a local businessman opposed to the Park Services' eradication efforts. As one character says, remembering her teacher's comments on Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, " was about nature, the power of it, the hugeness. Don't press your luck. Don't upset the balance. Let the albatross be. Let all the creatures be, for that matter ..." Boyle's novel lets readers make their own decision about where that balance lies.

For Young Adults (and those who feel young):

And because you're never too old to re-read (or read for the first time) those books that captured your imagination when you were younger:

It may seem unfair to include two books about the Channel Islands on this short list, but Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell made an indelible impression on me at an early age. Based on a true story, it's about an Indian girl left accidentally left behind when her tribe leaves her island for the mainland, and must survive on her own for 18 years. In addition to the descriptions of her hunting and fishing, the book describes the conflicts with the Russian captain and Aleut crew of sea otter hunters who visit the island – a reminder of the interconnected reliance on marine resources for both subsistence and trade all along the Pacific coast. And yes, this one too is based on a true story.

Misty of Chincoteague cover

Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry is about a family who raises a wild pony in Chincoteague, Virginia. The ponies, thought to be descendents of horses that survived the shipwreck of a Spanish galleon, are big attractions at Assateague National Seashore and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge today. Published in 1947, the book describes the now famous annual round up of wild ponies from the coastal island and "Pony Penning Day" Misty is bought by two children, Paul and Maureen. The book led to a beloved series of sequels.

And on my own reading list:

Some books set in marine protected areas that have been recommended to me, but I haven't read yet:

far tortuga coverPeter Matthiesen, who died earlier this year, had the distinction of winning the National Book Award for both fiction and nonfiction. I've had the pleasure of reading Killing Mr. Watson – one of his trilogy of novels about the Florida Everglades in the early 20th Century, but have never read Far Tortuga, which Matthiesen noted as his favorite of his books. Far Tortuga is the story of a turtle hunting voyage, but my friend tells me to read it for its gorgeous poetic descriptions of fishing and the sea.

Nevada Barr writes mysteries all set in National Parks. A few of her books focus on the watery real estate within the Park Service, including A Superior Death (set in Isle Royale Park in Lake Superior). Her heroine, Anna Pigeon, is a Park Service ranger. A Superior Death focuses on the suspicious death of a park ranger during a dive on a historic shipwreck.

Cannery Row, John Steinbeck's classic novel about a marine biologist, a group of down-and-outs, and other memorable characters in Monterey, California (along the shores of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary).

As different as they stories are, they all share a common thread: peoples' connection to the places they care about. Let's build on that.

Happy reading!