Saturday, August 26, 2023

The Island of Doves sweeps readers away to historic Mackinac Island

My father’s family are Michiganders, going back to the state’s rustic pioneer days in the mid-19th century. When I was growing up, we spent many summer weeks visiting my grandmother and other relatives, and some of these excursions involved trips to Mackinac (pronounced “Mackinaw”) Island, a picturesque isle sitting in the middle of Lake Huron, between Michigan’s Lower and Upper Peninsulas. The romantic time-travel film Somewhere in Time, set in 1912 and decades later, took place there.

Kelly O’Connor McNees’ The Island of Doves is also set on Mackinac, quite a bit earlier – in the 1830s, when the small piece of land was loosely populated by Odawa Indians, French settlers and traders, Métis families who were the descendants of both, and white Presbyterians relocating to Michigan from the east. One of its main attractions are the beautiful images of Mackinac’s unspoiled wilderness and waterscapes, and the depictions of life on the frontier: tending gardens, producing maple syrup, sewing moccasins, traveling by sled dog and canoe.

McNees’ two heroines are easy to warm to. As the wife of one of Buffalo’s leading business moguls, Susannah Fraser has no material wants. Her husband Edward is physically and emotionally abusive, though, and Susannah, being a proud woman, tries to endure the pain on her own, preferring to spend her days tending plants in her greenhouse. Magdelaine Fonteneau, an adventurous widow in her forties of part-Odawa, part-French heritage, lives permanently on Mackinac but has amassed a small fortune as a fur trader. Having lost both her younger and older sisters decades earlier – in particular, young Josette had been killed by a jealous suitor – she opens her home to Susannah when she needs a safe haven. Susannah’s maid and a kindly nun in Buffalo arrange for her escape via steamboat. The trials on the voyage force Susannah (who now uses the last name Dove) to confront life’s unsavory side but also go far in teaching her self-sufficiency.

The plot centers on relationships and character growth, as Susannah gains independence and Magdelaine learns to accept that her adult son, Jean-Henri, has a calmer personality than that of his ambitious, risk-taking late father. The story dwells more on religious differences, particularly those between Protestants and Catholics, than race relations at the time. I had hoped for something deeper in that respect. The story is rewarding, though, with the writing as smooth and clear as the pristine waters near Magdelaine’s home. It’s a pleasant journey into a little-known aspect of America’s past. The author’s notes reveal that Magdelaine is closely based on a historical figure, and her story is also worth knowing.

The Island of Doves was published by Berkley in 2014. I read this book (from my own collection) at the start of the pandemic, wrote a review, then got distracted and forgot I hadn’t posted it! So I thought I would do so now. 


  1. A new book for me. Thanks for the review