Let’s hope the next big tsunami doesn’t strike here

Don’t let the smokin’ hot cover fool you. This book poses a plausible scenario of survival after a natural catastrophe. And it's set in the San Juans.

“Phoenix Island,” by Charlotte Paul

“Phoenix Island” is one of those books I can’t decide whether to love or hate.

The cover art implies a bodice ripper, and sex and violence both run an undercurrent through the book, yet neither erupt with the force that their foreshadowing imply.

The writing verges on potboiler, but the survival story it tells is certainly relevant, and of widespread current interest. It sold a million copies in its day.

Charlotte Paul, author of “Phoenix Island,” lived on Lopez Island in the 1970s. When she wanted to write about a tidal wave, she telephoned the nation’s capital looking for experts. Finally, someone asked her, “Why are you calling here when you have the world’s foremost expert, Walter Cole, retired from the Coast and Geodetic Survey, living right there on your island?” Lopez Island newspaperman Pat Roe recalls she got her facts from that source when she researched her book.

In 1975, France had not signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty banning nuclear weapons tests. India had exploded a nuclear test a few years before. “Phoenix Island’s” premise is that a French hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific goes bad, triggering a tsunami. The giant wave spreads around the world, wreaking devastation.

When it reaches the outermost private islet of the San Juan archipelago, Phoenix, the tsunami interrupts a dinner party where a former nuclear scientist is hosting an oddball assortment of characters. The survivors — a singer, sculptor, fisherman, maid, New York homemaker, Washington socialite, attorney, and ex-con — enact a 1970s back-to-the-land fantasy where they learn to hunt and gather, manufacture tools and clothing, and even make beauty products!

Concerns of the ’70s — the place of women, the value of work, sex and fidelity in marriage — are prevalent. I was surprised by how a forgotten seller like this was neither exactly a product of its time, nor wholly dated by the passage of time.

Paul wrote eight books, served on the Washington state Board of Prison Terms and Paroles, and was appointed by the president to the U.S. Board of Parole.

From what I’ve learned about plate tectonics and the possibility for a massive earthquake off the coast of northern California running all the way to Vancouver Island, the plausibility of a tsunami like the one depicted in this novel might not be fiction. We would all do well to be at least as well prepared for survival as the fictional characters of Phoenix. Learn more by visiting www.sanjuandem.net

“Phoenix Island,” like all books reviewed in this column, may be found at the San Juan Island Library.

— Beth Helstien is the outreach coordinator for the San Juan Island Library. She may be reached most Wednesdays through Fridays at 378-2798 or at bhelstien@sjlib.org.