Kitts, W. 2011. Sable Island, The Wandering Sandbar. Nimbus Publishing Limited, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 90 pages.

Two Reviews prepared in November 2011: #1 by Larry Meikle (Ontario), and # 2 by Dominique Gusset (Nova Scotia).

Review # 1 (Larry Meikle): With its pending addition to Canada’s National Parks system, the time couldn’t be better to launch a book that would introduce young readers to the history, diversity and beauty of Sable Island.

At first glance, Sable Island, The Wandering Sandbar by Wendy Kitts appears to be such a book. The Table of Contents promises a trip through time, from the origin of the Island (“The Wandering Sandbar”), through its fascinating history, its flora and fauna, and culminates in the Island’s present and future (“Sable Island Today”). The large print format is easy to read and its ninety pages are amply illustrated, although many of the photographs lack detail or are of poor quality.

The promise offered at first glance is, unfortunately, short-lived. Although Kitts mentions the island’s beauty and its “magical” nature, she seems to focus on death, danger and violence, and these themes permeate the book.

Beginning on page 1, with “…Where you have to be careful not only of the quicksand, but also of the sharks in the water…”, the ‘dangers’ of sharks, and quicksand (on Sable quicksand is more of a minor nuisance to vehicles than a hazard to people) are repeated a dozen times throughout the book.

Kitts informs us on page 58, in large, bold type that “When the ships came closer [to the island], they wrecked [sic] on the sandbars and then pirates robbed and murdered the people on the ships.”

On page 60, under the heading: “The “Graveyard of the Atlantic” rarely gives up its dead”, a reference is made to the sinking of the Andrea Gail off Sable in 1991 (“…There were six people onboard [sic], but no bodies were ever found. Bodies don’t always wash up on Sable Island. Sometimes they get caught in the currents and float around and around the island.” )

Page 66 tells the story of a Mrs. Copeland, who found herself shipwrecked on Sable. Her ghost is said to haunt Sable Island. Kitts tells us of “…Wreckers [those who steal from shipwrecked vessels] [who] cut off Mrs. Copeland’s ring finger to steal her wedding ring. No one knows if Mrs. Copeland was dead or alive when the ring was stolen but many have claimed to see her ghost at night walking the beach. She is wet and crying and dripping blood from her left hand, which is missing its ring finger.”

In all, I found nine references to “dying/dead” in The Wandering Sandbar, and as many references to “drowned/starved/strangled/eaten”. The writing style is repetitive; the words “danger/dangerous”, and “body/bodies” are spread liberally throughout the book.

Six of the book’s images portray animal corpses or remains.

Perhaps most troubling of all is that The Wandering Sandbar is riddled with inaccurate or misleading “facts”. These are too numerous to review here, but typical examples include two photos of skulls on pages 45 and 53. They are captioned as being horse skulls, when in fact they are seal skulls.

On page 15 readers will find a photo of an albatross corpse with its stomach contents (mostly plastic bottle caps) in full view. The fact that the bird died from ingesting this plastic litter is disturbing; what I find more disturbing is Kitts’ failure to mention that this photo is not about Sable Island. Albatrosses are very rarely sighted anywhere near Sable, and this photo was taken on Midway Atoll in the Pacific Ocean.

There is much more that Kitts needs to tell young readers, but doesn’t. A perfect example is found on page 52. Under the heading: “No help allowed”, readers are shown a pathetic looking horse having one leg that is longer than the other three. The caption reads, in part: “It is against the law for anyone to feed, touch, or even help [my emphasis] the wild horses of Sable Island.”

Unless informed otherwise, the reader is left to feel that the Canadian government policy is callous and insensitive to the welfare of Sable’s horses. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In 1960, the Sable Island Regulations in the Canada Shipping Act were enacted to ensure that:

“No person shall, without prior written permission from the Agent … molest, interfere with, feed, or otherwise have anything to do with the ponies on the Island.”

The legislation is intended to protect the horses from human interference, allowing them to live their lives as free, wild animals. Kitts has a duty to inform young readers of the law’s intention; otherwise, she is engaging in sensationalism.

The Wandering Sandbar is a book of unfulfilled potential. The book’s concept—to walk young readers through time, from the creation of Sable eons ago through its more recent history to Sable Island as we know it today—is ambitious, and laudable. To apply this concept in print the author must be able to explain complex scientific phenomena (the geology of Sable’s formation; the meteorological work performed at the Station; the effects of converging ocean currents, etc.) in terms young people can understand, while ensuring that all of the facts presented are accurate. It is this accuracy that is lacking in The Wandering Sandbar.

For this book to be meaningful the author’s research should have drawn upon the knowledge of those having an extensive familiarity with the Island, and a sound scientific background. The author’s manuscript should then have been proofread by such individuals, to ensure its scientific accuracy. Regrettably, this does not appear to have been the case.

I first became aware of Sable Island some fifty years ago, when I read a story about its wild and free horses in an elementary school reader. As a young boy I was intrigued by this distant and untamed land—so far away yet still a part of my country, Canada. This began my lifelong fascination with, and abiding interest in, the island, its history, and its future.

If my introduction to Sable as a young boy had been The Wandering Sandbar, I’m sure my reaction would have been quite different. I would have closed the cover thinking that Sable Island was a foreboding, desolate, dangerous place—somewhere to avoid, at all costs.

This book could have been an excellent resource for children and educators were it not for its numerous inaccuracies, and a morbid focus. I would recommend that you take a pass on The Wandering Sandbar.

Prepared for the Sable Island Green Horse Society
by William Lawrence Meikle (Brockville, Ontario), November 2011

 

Review # 2 (Gusset): I am not a writer, and don’t consider myself one to critique an author’s literary abilities, but as a documentary filmmaker and someone who has been to Sable Island, I am highly interested in how the Island is represented to the public. So this is a commentary, rather than a comprehensive review…

There are already several authoritative books about Sable Island, including a few specifically written for young readers. Sable Island, The Wandering Sandbar by Wendy Kitts, is presented as a factual book aimed at seven to nine-year olds, and it attempts to offer an original perspective which could justify its addition to the bibliography on the subject.

The concept is good, and is intended to introduce young readers to non-fiction with a table of contents, illustrations, side-bars with additional information to connect several aspects of the Island to educational themes, and a small glossary. However, the choice of in-depth detail seemed haphazard, the glossary is unsystematic, there is no index, and the book contains many factual errors.

Although the design makes an attempt to be visually appealing, I was disappointed by many of the illustrations: some photos simply lack quality (under exposed, poorly composed), some provide inadequate views (badly cropped, or showing the main subject in the background of the image), and some do not actually show what is indicated by their captions (see below). This was a missed opportunity when one considers the visual potential the Island has to offer.

I was also annoyed with the repetitive use of words such as “wild”, “magical” and “tiny”, beginning with the description of Sable Island as a “tiny sandbar” (page 3). Sable Island may be a small island, but I think most would consider it a rather large sandbar. Similarly irritating is use of the word “baby” to describe various young animals (which should have been referred to as foals, chicks, pups). Why should anything about this remarkable island sound like a romanticized “fairy tale” (page 6)?! Add a few aimless ‘jokes’ (e.g., pages 29, 31, 75) and it all seems like a forced ‘informal’ style. This may be intended to keep young readers interested, but to me it contradicts the attempt to introduce students to non-fiction reading with some new educational terms, and the overall effect seems condescending.

Finally, I was surprised that a reputable publisher such as Nimbus would market this book as educational without comprehensive editing. Although some errors may seem like technicalities, they should have been corrected before publication. The following are some examples:

On three occasions (pages 3, 8 and 10) the author refers to Sable Island being in the “middle” of the Atlantic ocean. If it were in the middle of the Atlantic, the island would be over 2000 km from the coast of Nova Scotia. And it is actually less than 200 km from the coast.

The scale for the maps on page 11 is in miles. As a Canadian publication, surely distance should have been given in kilometres. Likewise, centimetres should have been used instead of inches on page 26.

On page 5, the caption for the lower photograph says “A grey seal sunbathes on the beach.” It is not a Grey Seal, it’s a Harbour Seal.

Regarding the currents mentioned in the sidebar text on page 14, the Nova Scotia Current, not the Belle Isle Current, should have been listed. And the Gulf Stream flows several hundred kilometres south of the island. It does not “hit” the island.

The photograph on page 15, identified as an albatross, seems inappropriate, considering that these birds do not even inhabit the North Atlantic. Local wildlife should have been used to illustrate the hazards of plastics.

On page 17, in the sidebar text, the author explains “One day during a storm, the bottom floor of the lightkeeper’s house started filling up with sand. The lightkeeper and his family moved upstairs and went in and out through the windows.”  This did not happen. The author is referring to the old house at East Light (shown in the photo). After the light was automated and the lightkeeper had left the island, the house—both upper and lower floors—continued to be used quite comfortably, for more than thirty years, by researchers studying seals and horses.

Page 27, the author states that “The fog is caused by two of the ocean currents that meet at Sable Island. When the cold water of the northern Labrador Current mixes with the warm water of the southern Gulf Stream, a heavy fog is created.” This is not how the fog is formed. The fog forms when warm moist air passes over cool water.

The aerial photo on page 31 does not show what is described by the sidebar text. These are not the freshwater ponds; Lake Wallace is not in the shot; and the buildings are not those of the station. Rather, these ponds are brackish (salty), Wallace Lake is actually a couple of kilometres east of the area shown; and the buildings visible in the top left-hand corner are at the West Light site.

On page 34, the author mentions “A little sea sponge that grows in Lake Wallace is not found anywhere else…”. There is a sponge found in the freshwater ponds, but it is a freshwater sponge, not a “sea sponge”, and it is not found in salty Lake Wallace.

To say that the dead seal shown in the photograph on page 35 is “probably a victim of a shark attack” is misleading. All that can be determined from this bloated carcass is that it is decomposing, and appears to have been scavenged, probably by gulls.

On page 37, regarding the statement that birds from as far away as New Zealand have shown up on Sable Island during storms, there is no record of a bird from New Zealand showing up on the island during any kind of weather.

The photographs on pages 45 and 53 show the skull of an adult Grey Seal. This is not a horse as is stated by the two captions.

On pages 48 and 49, the caption indicates that the two letters shown are examples of those sent during the campaign to save the horses. However, both are post-campaign ‘thank you’ letters.

On page 58, regarding wrecked ships, the author writes that “…Sable’s strong winds and waves bury it in the sand. An entire ship can disappear overnight!” There are no records of any ship being buried in sand overnight. Nor are there any examples on Sable of anything of that size being buried overnight.

Page 63, the caption states “Lighthouses, like the West Light above, are now automatic.” However, the West Light is not automatic because it was decommissioned and turned off in 2005.

Prepared for the Sable Island Green Horse Society
by Dominique Gusset (Duncan’s Cove, Nova Scotia), November 2011