On the Island
Tracey Garvis Graves
Anna Emerson plans to spend her summer tutoring a 16-year-old boy while he and his parents vacation in the Maldives. T.J. Callahan has recently recovered from a life-threatening cancer that has set him back academically. Anna and T.J. meet at O’Hare airport, but they never make it to the remote island where his parents are waiting. The charter pilot ferrying them from Malé to the small island has a heart attack and dies in flight. The seaplane crashes into the ocean. Anna and T.J. barely survive and are washed ashore a deserted island with little but their wits to help them survive. Their tropical island paradise is far from the airlines’ flight paths. In the week or two after the crash, a couple search planes fly over the island, but do not spot the castaways. Weeks turn into months, and the pair eventually gives up hope of being rescued. “This is our home now,” says T.J.
Anna and T.J. survive on breadfruit and coconuts. Over time, they teach themselves how to start a fire, to build shelter, to catch fish, and to collect rainwater. Providentially, several items from the plane crash wash up on their beach – the life raft which they use as a sleeping shelter (they briefly consider leaving the island in the raft, but due to the thousands of miles of ocean surrounding them, they realize that would be suicide), T.J.’s backpack containing a precious bottle of water and Anna’s suitcase which contains essential toiletries and a first aid kit. Anna and T.J. fall into a routine where basically all they do is sleep, eat, swim, gather food and firewood. They play poker, splash in the surf with a friendly pod of dolphins, and explore their tiny island. A string of dangers threatens to interrupt their day-to-day existence. A bat bites Anna and they worry about rabies. She is severely stung by jellyfish. T.J. falls out of a tree and breaks his collarbone. From mosquito bites, he contracts a life-threatening malaria-like virus. A shark invades their lagoon, and with help from their dolphin friends, they figure out a way to kill it before it kills them. A hurricane destroys their shelter. Both Anna and T.J. suffer from severe weight loss and malnutrition.
Months on the island turn into years. As they have no one else, they come to care about each other deeply. Anna was thirty years old and T.J. sixteen at the time of the crash. But despite their fourteen year age difference, over the course of three years, the attraction between them intensifies. On the island, without any societal mores, their ages become irrelevant and the two fall in love. Just prior to T.J.’s 19th birthday, they consummate their affection for each other.
One day, they walk down to the beach, and the surf has oddly receded far out to the reef. At first they are perplexed, and then they see it. A giant wave headed straight for them. Within seconds, a tsunami, (the historic tsunami of 2004), engulfs their island. Anna and T.J. both nearly drown, but instead are miraculously rescued by helicopter search and rescue teams, who take them to a hospital in Malé. What likely would have been the death of them turns out to be their salvation. Finally, they are rescued.
While stranded, Anna and T.J. had lived in their own little world. Once they are rescued, it’s a whole different world. Naturally, they are elated to be off the island, but the transition poses challenges. They try to fit in, but nothing is the same. The two were presumed dead and their friends and family had mourned them, so it’s a shock to them as well. Anna’s parents have died and she lives temporarily with her sister. She battles post-traumatic stress disorder. T.J.’s parents reluctantly accept that he’s an adult now. He’s listless and doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. After their rescue, they become instant media celebrities. And the public, even many of their friends, cannot understand their relationship. It now seems that, once back in the real world, Anna and T.J. are naturally at different places in their lives. He wants to hang out with his friends and party. She’s ready to settle down and start a family. They eventually break up because Anna insists she doesn’t want to be the reason T.J. misses out on any part of his life. T.J. insists that she is all he wants, that he will love her forever, but Anna doubts his love and worries that sooner or later, he will find her too “old.” Ultimately, both of them discover what they truly want and love prevails.
On the Island is one of those rare books that made a successful transition from initially being self-published to being picked up by a major publisher because it has been so successful. Garvis Graves’ debut novel is absolutely worthy of that distinction. It is a well-written compelling love story. Highly recommended. I can’t wait to read her next book. Find Garvis Graves on her website.