My Father’s Island

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The Galapagos Islands owe their fame to two nineteenth century giants, one scientific and one literary. In 1835 a young naturalist aboard the British surveying ship Beagle spent a month in these volcanic islands astride the equator some six hundred miles west of Ecuador. Charles Darwin’s observations of the flora and fauna there suggested to him the theory of evolution that he finally set forth in On the Origin of Species (1859). In the early 1840’s a similarly youthful seaman, Herman Melville, visited the islands twice and made them the basis of a group of sketches called The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles (1854).

Subsequently, other scientists and travelers and a novelist as well known as Kurt Vonnegut have written of the islands, but few, if any, inhabitants of the Enchanted Isles have ventured into print. A 1958 Argosy magazine article purported to be the work of Carl Angermeyer, one of the few hundred inhabitants of the relatively livable Santa Cruz, but his sister-in-law in the United States recognized the article as ghostwritten. The locale is not one to attract literati, and the English name for Santa Cruz, Indefatigable, describes a trait much more crucial to a colonist than literary talent. Carl Angermeyer’s niece has now produced an account of life in this remote paradise—to use a word that Johanna Angermeyer employs not as a cliche’ but with attention to its implications. Many of her relatives live there, but she went there in search of a father who had spent only a few months in the islands and had died in her infancy. She supplies the rather complicated background of her “quest” through a variety of techniques that collectively re-create the impression of a girl discovering both her cosmopolitan ancestry and the motivations and doings of her forebears.

Johanna Angermeyer was born about as far from the ocean as one can get on the North American continent. Her mother’s Russian-born family had emigrated to Lincoln, Nebraska, early in this century and enacted their version of the American success story. Emma, Johanna’s mother, fell in love with a dashing young Ecuadorian who was enrolled in the Charles Lindbergh School of Aviation in the 1930’s. They married and moved to Quito, the Ecuadorian capital, but shortly after the birth of their son the flyer crashed in the Andes. Eventually the boy would inherit property in Ecuador, but in the meantime the young widow married a refugee from Hitler’s Germany. Johannes Angermeyer (usually called “Hans”) and three of his brothers had gravitated to this South American nation with dreams of beginning life anew in the Ecuadorian island possessions in the Pacific, but Emma’s pregnancy kept the couple in Quito. Two months before their daughter Mary was born, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor; the American government insisted that Emma return home as soon as the child could stand the trip, but her German husband was denied entry.

After the war the couple finally managed to join Gus, Carl, and Fritz Angermeyer in the islands, but with Emma expecting another child, Hans refused to risk the birth in an archipelago barren of medical resources, so the rest of the family went back to Nebraska while Hans, by then seriously ill with tuberculosis, petitioned unavailingly for entry to the United States. He died in Quito in 1948 without ever seeing his second daughter. Later the family moved to California, and the book begins with the ten-year-old Johanna girding herself for her first crack at show-and-tell in her class-room. Having seen her Galapagos relatives featured on a television program called Travel to Adventure, she truthfully, although unconvincingly, relates her discovery to Miss Bean, who is skeptical of the existence of islands that do not appear on the big world map, and classmates who chortle at her account of the “Gallopin’ Islands.” The narrative proceeds from this point to the time when the eighteen-year-old Johanna learns to ride a half-broken stallion over the crusted lava of Santa Cruz.

The islands entranced her from the beginning, and the reader is invited to participate in the unwinding of the long process which finally takes her there at the age of fourteen for a summer visit. The author intersperses stories that the twice-widowed Emma tells her three children, letters, diary entries, and information pried from relatives in her attempt to discover the full Angermeyer saga and particularly her father’s role in it. The mystery of her father gradually but never completely unfolds for her. To the very end she is denied so much as a glimpse of his final resting place, for when, as a young woman, she visits the cemetery in Quito, she finds that his grave has been “reoccupied” for the lack of anyone to pay an annual maintenance fee. The book becomes a testament to her unknown father; Santa Cruz is not the island where her uncles have flourished; it is “my father’s island.”

Nevertheless, the uncles, especially “King Gus” and “Duke Carl,” as they are styled, emerge as remarkably vital persons, as do a number of the author’s other relatives, male and female....

(The entire section is 2106 words.)