Science Fiction, Fantasy & Utopia
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Reviews: Inez Haynes Gillmore

Angel Island (1914: Holt, New York; 1914: Bell, London; 1978: Arno, New York; 1988: Signet, with an introduction by Ursula K. Le Guin)

See also the Unofficial Inez Haynes Gillmore Irwin Page for biographical & bibliographical information.

Angel Island is an interesting study. Written in 1914, this is a story about relations between men and women. The plot is none too complex: five shipwrecked men encounter on an island five winged-women who have left their own race of winged-people. The men and the women are mutually attracted; soon the men rationalize male dominance in a rather horrific and brutal fashion; eventually the women revolt and win concessions.

Although the basic concept is simple, this book is interesting for several reasons. The author was a famous suffragist and children's author; so as a fantasy written by a feminist, Angel Island is of some note. The many descriptions of the women in flight are moving and intense, and even to a modern reader the men's rationalizations of their behavior are frightening.

But some aspects of the novel are problematic, as well. Le Guin's foreword implies that she saw great anger in the women over their ill-treatment; I found no such anger. The women were remarkably complicit in their own repression. And Gillmore's characters in general display considerable stereotypic behavior, including female vanity & coyness, male aggression & intellectual drive. In fact, much of this work seems familiar: the unstated assumptions of 19th century US about women and men are here in full, and the relationships between men and women work out as one would imagine they would in most 1914 novels. However, in Angel Island, the focus of the story is on these very same assumptions and the patterns of the relationships, and in the end, Gillmore succeeds in making the reader confront some of those assumptions.

Was Gillmore consciously employing these stereotypes to make the challenges to Western assumptions all the more stunning? It's possible, but the very old-fashioned essentialist assumptions will seem jarring and sexist to modern readers. Nonetheless, Angel Island is still worth reading for its subtle liberal feminist insistence that regardless of our gender, we all have a right to fulfill our potential -- to fly.
-- lq, 5/27/97

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