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June 1, 2010

We Were an Island: The Maine Life of Art and Nan Kellam

written by Peter P. Blanchard III, with photographs by David Graham

reviewed by by Thomas Urquhart

University Press of New England, 2010

190 pages, $27.95

Their own kingdom

"[A] castle that was also a kingdom, surrounded by a moat"--that was the dream of a mid-western couple transplanted to the West Coast. Engineering work at Lockheed during World War II had taken Art Kellam and his wife Nan to California, and the war delayed the search for their Shangri-La. They were 38 and had been married 15 years before they ran their specially-built dory up the beach of a Maine island.

The Kellams did not come as "summer folk." They lived on Placentia Island, off Mt. Desert Island, year-round until Art died in 1985. Nan stayed on alone for another two years. When they first arrived in June 1949, the only structures on the island were an old sheep shed and a run-down barn, which they turned into comfortable, if Spartan, quarters dubbed Homewood.

The Kellams were avid recorders of their life. Nan left a daily journal. The "Big Book" was intended as a more "coherent and eloquent" narrative, according to author Peter P. Blanchard III.

Blanchard was the land steward for The Nature Conservancy (to which the Kellams gave their island) whose job it was to oversee Placentia while Nan was still in residence. He gives a humorous account-plus the one he found in her journal later-of his first meeting with Placentia's chatelaine. He arrived "bearing a gift that, I was certain, would put me in her immediate good graces. Before I could complete the goodwill gesture, I tripped at the door sill and the container of Haagen-Dazs strawberry ice cream gained a momentum of its own." It was already soft from the voyage to the island, and ended up all over its would-be beneficiary.

Blanchard's book is based on the Kellams' own words. The journal was written without much thought for posterity. Nan employs so many personal terms invented by the Bears (the Kellams' name for themselves) that a glossary is included. Evidently, the Islanders (as Blanchard calls them) had literary aspirations. Daily writing sessions are recorded, and Art saw himself as a short story writer. However, there is no reference to seeking an editor or the fate of his typescripts.

Once the latter-day Crusoes are ensconced on Placentia, Blanchard organizes his book according to the gamut of motivations, relationships and activities into which all lives fall, but more intensely in the rarefied circumstances of an island. Particularly charming are the excerpts that track their growing familiarity with the birdlife on the island. Their writings reveal their practical-if rigidly patriarchal-natures, but also a spark of poetry, especially in Nan, for instance describing the advance of spring, "a warm promise up from banks of thawing snow and down from a brighter sun."

Blanchard is also at his best among the evanescent beauties of Placentia. "As the couple passed below, a brief gust of wind from the open sea sent snow, which had accumulated on conifer branches, into brilliant bursts of fine powder in the declining sunlight." In the end, this is a book about an island and its hold on the imagination, as much as it is about Art and Nan Kellam, wonderful intermediaries though they are.

About them, we end up knowing surprisingly little. Blanchard dismisses a series of "myths" that grew up around them-they were once Nazi agents, Art had been part of the Manhattan Project, and the like-but without providing much else in the way of a past. He tries to discuss the trials, as well as the glories, of a relationship in such isolation, but either he or the journal is so discreet that we don't get much idea of what it was like.

We Were an Island is illustrated with old black and white snapshots taken by the Kellams. These are enhanced by David Graham's color photographs, especially of some of the details inside Homewood. In fact, I am surprised that Graham gets only a passing mention in the Acknowledgements; his work adds tremendously to the book.

One quibble: I don't know who the publisher expects to read We Were an Island, but I doubt they will need to be told that, in a woodland, succession is "an ecological process," that Lisbon, when to the southeast, is "Portugal," that willow ware is "household china with a blue and white design," or that an archipelago is a "group of islands."

Nonetheless, this is a perfect gift for anyone who has feelings for one or more of Maine's 3,000 islands. "The Islanders' saga represents," writes Blanchard in a final note comparing the Kellams to Scott Nearing and his wife, "the life journey of Everyman, disenchanted with the status quo and intent on pursuing a novel path, but without rigorous plans for self-improvement or for promotion of a specific philosophy." It is a grand addition to the Maine library.

Thomas Urquhart is the former director of Maine Audubon and author of For the Beauty of the Earth.

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