Elisabeth Gilbert: Stern Men

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gilbertBefore I set off for Croatia and then Drummond Island, I’d like to leave you with another reading tip. “Stern Men” is a first novel by Elisabeth Gilbert. Her heroine is an independent, smart and plucky 19 year-old girl called Ruth who fritters away the summer on a remote island populated by oddball lobstermen who are feuding with the lobstermen on a second island. Ruth is back after four years of boarding school, and in fact the island of her childhood is too small for her. She needs a job, and a lover would be nice, too. The blurb on the back cover reads:

“Ruth wondered whether she would enjoy lobster fishing more if she had her own boat, if she were the captain. Maybe it was just working with her father that was so unpleasant. She couldn’t imagine, though, whom she would enlist as a sternman. She ran over the names of all the young men from Fort Niles and quickly confirmed that, yes, they were all idiots. Every last drunken one of them. Incompetent, lazy, surly, inarticulate, funny-looking.”

The good news, of course, is that she does find work, and she falls in love with the enemy and somehow manages to reconcile the feuding islands in the process. What totally hooked me was her relationship to her home island:

“It was Ruth Thomas’s firm position that she belonged nowhere but on Fort Niles Island. This was the position she took with her mother: she was truly happy only on Fort Niles; Fort Niles was in her blood and soul; and the only people who understood her were the residents of Fort Niles Island. None of this, it must be said, was entirely true.

It was important to Ruth in principle that she feel happy on Fort Niles, although, for the most part, she was pretty bored there. She missed the island when she was away from it, but when she returned, she immediately found herself at a loss for diversion. She made a point of taking a long walk around the shoreline the minute she came home (“I’ve been thinking about this all year,” she would say) , but the walk took only a few hours, and what did she think about on that walk? Not much. There was a seagull; there was a seal; there was another seagull. The scenery was as familiar to her as her bedroom ceiling. She took books down to the shore, claiming she loved to read near the pounding surf, but the sad thing is that many places on this Earth offer better reading envirionments than wet, barnacle-covered rocks. When Ruth was away from Fort Niles, the island became endowed with the characteristics of a distant paradise, but when she returned to it, she found her home cold and damp and windy and uncomfortable.

Still, whenever she was on Fort Niles, Ruth wrote letters to her mother, saying “Finally I can breathe again.”

Elisabeth Gilbert is being compared to John Irving, and I can recommend this book for the sheer joy of the language she uses to bring her characters and the island they inhabit to life.

Elisabeth Gilbert:  Stern Men. Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Also by Elisabeth Gilbert:

  • Eat, Pray, Love. One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. 2006 (Nonfiction; her travels after her divorce).
  • The Last American Man. Viking 2001 (Nonfiction; working on a dude ranch).
  • Pilgrims. Houghton Mifflin 1997 (Stories).

Learning the ropes – Words

narrate – erzählen
plucky – beherzt
to fritter away the time – sich die Zeit vertreiben
remote – entlegen
oddball – schräg
lobsterman – Hummerfischer
feuding – verfeindet
boarding school – Internat
the blurb reads – im Klappentext steht
enlist – anwerben
sternman – ein Arbeiter an Deck
stern man – ein ernster Mann
to run over a list – eine Liste durchgehen
to confirm – bestätigen
lazy – faul
surly – mürrisch
inarticulate – sprachlich unbegabt
enemy – Feind
reconcile – versöhnen
hooked – begeistert
residents – Bewohner
she insisted that she feel happy – sie bestand drauf, glücklich zu sein (Konjunktiv, ein Befehl an sich selbst)
(be) at a loss for diversion – nicht zu tun haben
to make a point of + ing – etwas aus Prinzip machen
shoreline – Küste
seagull – Möwe
seal – Seehund
shore – Ufer
ceiling – Decke
pounding surf – stampfende Brandung
barancles – Seepocken
endow – ausstatten
damp – feucht

Learning English tip of the week

How about signing up for a conversation course? It is easier to start a new project at the end of the summer than at the beginning of a new year.


I’ll be updating this blog from Drummond Island, but the Island Weekly podcast is taking a break and will start up again in September.

learning english – englischlernen – learning english – englischlernen


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