John (Marsden) Ehle (Jr.)

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Allen Ward

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This dramatic novel ["Kingstree Island"] about fisherfolk who live on a wind swept island off North Carolina is remarkably like the scenario for a Hollywood epic. The year is 1938, but the people of Kingstree Island are cut off from the main stream of American life by a four-hour boat trip and their existence, as John Ehle describes it, is simple but violent in a way reminiscent of life in the old West nearly a century ago. Thus it is, perhaps, appropriate that this straightforward story is remarkably like a very good Western. Even the hero is the traditional wandering stranger.

Brandon Rhodes, a 24-year-old Southerner described as a "somber man, still holding traces of a distant aristocracy," has come to the island after many years of traveling the face of America…. [When] he first sets eyes on the island he decides he will make it his home.

This is not easy, for the island does not welcome strangers. The man who rules it—much as the rich old cattle baron traditionally rules the little Western town in the movies—is blind, aging Matt Tomlinson, boss of the fishing fleet and owner of the island's one store. Tomlinson has virtual power of life and death over the islanders, determining who shall work and who shall not….

How Rhodes battles the old man for the right to stay on the island—and incidentally to free the fishermen from his grip—makes up the body of this picturesque tale. One never gets very deep inside the characters, but their actions give a fair idea of the turmoil underneath.

Allen Ward, "Offshore Nepenthe," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1959 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 20, 1959, p. 50.

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