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Charlotte Paul, Twentieth-Century Utopian

By Mark Shepard


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Copyright © 2011–2014 Mark Shepard. Appears as the afterword to the 35th Anniversary Edition of Phoenix Island. May be freely copied and shared for any noncommercial purpose as long as no text is altered or omitted.


SPOILER ALERT!
This essay discusses the ending of Phoenix Island.

Book cover: Phoenix IslandCharlotte Paul—journalist, freelance writer, author, and more—was a woman ahead of her time, and maybe ahead of our own. When asked to contribute to a 1974 volume of reflections by graduates of Wellesley College, she provided a statement that characterizes much of her life and best work.

At Wellesley, I was encouraged to be curious. I was taught to question the source. I was trained to ask on what authority the authoritative answer had been based. So I have not accepted anything—neither the barriers masculine tradition has built, nor the hurdles woman has placed in her own path.

Charlotte was born in Seattle in 1916 and raised in the Pacific Northwest. After graduating from Wellesley in 1938, she tried various jobs before landing at the Chicago Daily Times, where she worked for two years as an assistant foreign news editor. There, too, she met her first husband, fellow news editor Ed Groshell. Together they bought a farm outside the city, and Charlotte, while staying home to mind the farm and their two sons, launched a career as a freelance writer.

In 1949, an unwanted job change for Ed inspired them to abandon Chicago entirely and escape to then-remote Snoqualmie Valley, back in Washington state. There they bought and ran the small local newspaper and print shop, struggling to keep afloat while adjusting to the independence and responsibility of small business owners.

Meanwhile, Charlotte kept up her work as a freelance writer. Over the years, she sold numerous articles and stories to major magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, Redbook, Esquire, Coronet, Pageant, Good Housekeeping, and McCall’s. Her first novel appeared in 1950—Hear My Heart Speak, about a World War I veteran, psychologically damaged from the war, living in a rural Wisconsin community. Stories heard from old-timers of the Snoqualmie Valley provided a rich source of lore for two historical romances, the bestselling Gold Mountain (1953) and The Cup of Strength (1958), later republished as Wild Valley (1981). Her own family’s pursuit of independence was memorialized in Charlotte’s only two nonfiction books, the bestselling Minding Our Own Business (1955) and its sequel, And Four to Grow (1961).

Despite their value as literary inspiration, both the family’s newspaper ownership and Charlotte’s marriage came to an end, and in 1962 she embarked on a new career: government service. Having already served on the Washington State Council for Children and Youth, she now took an appointment to the Washington State Board of Prison Terms and Paroles, followed in 1964 by an appointment to the U.S. Board of Parole. Moving to Washington, D.C., she worked mainly with that board’s Youth Correction Division.

In the capital, she met her second husband, Robert W. Reese, a career employee at the Treasury Department, and together they planned another escape. So, in 1970, Charlotte returned once more to Washington State, but this time to Lopez Island—one of the San Juan Islands, lying between mainland Washington and Canada’s Vancouver Island—where she was to remain with her husband until her death in 1989.

On Lopez, Charlotte returned to her typewriter, and by 1972 had completed Phoenix Island—her story of nine people stranded on a remote island by a tsunami caused by a nuclear weapons test, who are then forced to overcome their differences and unite their efforts in order to survive. This was the million-copy bestseller that was to cement her success as a writer and form the peak of her literary career.

In the real world, there is no Phoenix Island, Wolf Island, Discovery County—in fact, there are no “Outer Islands” at all. Where Charlotte located them in her novel is solid blue on the map. Still, they are far from completely imaginary. They are closely modeled in flora, fauna, and geography on Charlotte’s own Lopez Island and the other San Juan Islands—right down to the absence of squirrels. (Since Charlotte’s time, though, several species of squirrel have either appeared on Lopez or been introduced there.)

Having been a journalist, Charlotte’s approach to Phoenix Island was to research it as extensively as she would any work of nonfiction. To learn about tsunamis, she phoned back to the nation’s capital to find experts who would help her. Finally, she was referred to possibly the world’s leading expert on the subject, who had worked at the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (today the National Geodetic Survey)—and who happened to have retired to Lopez Island!

Charlotte was even more energetic in researching local wild edible plants. In fact, it became a passion for her, as she took to foraging plants and serving them at home to family and guests. These dinners, though, were not always as successful as those on Phoenix Island. Her son Hiram Groshell recalls one dinner party at which Charlotte served wild mushrooms. Afterward, the guests had to be rushed to the mainland for up to three days in the hospital.

In the 1970s, Charlotte’s practice of questioning authority had become widespread in U.S. society, and interest in alternatives ran high. This enabled Charlotte to use Phoenix Island as a forum to question things more deeply than in any of her previous writing. With this book, she challenged not only the nuclear weapons establishment and the Cold War mindset but the direction of Western culture as a whole.

Though the novel can be seen as a blend of several popular genres—techno-thriller, wilderness survival adventure, and romance—these are basically dressing for what is at its heart a utopian novel. Phoenix Island decries the artifices of modern society and points toward a better way to live. Having twice escaped from the stresses, compromises, and dependencies of today’s urban culture, Charlotte beckons us all to do the same.

Though Charlotte was not a Quaker, Phoenix Island suggests a strong Quaker influence. Signs of this include not only the book’s condemnation of nuclear weapons and its positive view of what Quakers and others in the ’70s called “simple living”—themes embraced by the Quakers but not exclusive to them—but more explicitly the practices developed by the Phoenix Islanders. Their nightly meeting, with its decision making by consensus instead of voting, closely resembles the Quaker Meeting for Business. And the islanders’ Sunday meditation, in which individuals are allowed to speak when so inspired, is almost exactly a Quaker Meeting for Worship.

Another theme of the book that is not specifically Quaker but would find sympathy among them is faith in the inherent goodness of humanity. However extreme the faults of individual Phoenix Islanders, however awful their actions—and some are truly horrendous—Charlotte gives each character a chance to transcend their shortcomings and redeem themselves. By the end of the novel, not one islander has failed to grow into a better person, or to be recognized and appreciated as such by their companions. What a departure from the moral simplification of most contemporary literature!

A book as daring as Phoenix Island required a publisher just as daring, and Charlotte found him in publishing legend Bernard Geis. Best known for shock-value blockbusters like Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls and Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl, Geis refused to play by the polite rules of traditional New York publishing, and thereby tore down barriers to wide readership. Acting as “packager,” Geis arranged for publication of Phoenix Island by The New American Library, which issued it in 1976 in small paperback format only. (The 35th Anniversary Edition marks the first offering of the novel in quality paperback format, and it has never been published in hardcover.)

Charlotte went on to write several more novels, all handled by Geis, who had become not only her publisher but her mentor as well. In 1976, there was A Child Is Missing, a kidnap thriller inspired by the Lindbergh case. In 1980, The Image, a supernatural thriller. And in 1987, Charlotte’s final book, Seattle, the epic story of an immigrant family in the late nineteenth century—a family victimized by greed and corruption during a historic gold rush.

Oddly, one book that Charlotte did not publish is a sequel to Phoenix Island. This is especially surprising since she obviously had one planned. At the end of the novel’s final chapter, Charlotte introduced new characters and a new plot line that clearly point to a future book. (In the 35th Anniversary Edition, this now-extraneous material has been removed from its normal place in the novel but is appended as an “alternate ending.”)

In this projected sequel, the Phoenix Islanders—having largely mastered both their challenging environment and the conflicts within their community—would marshal their considerable collective resources and ingenuity to face a challenge from off island: a powerful gangster intending to use Phoenix for drug running. It promised to be a juicy entertainment, but it never appeared—and as far as Charlotte’s surviving family is aware, it was never written.

And how might that sequel have ended? Would the Phoenix Islanders at last return to “civilization” and try to transform society by selling their stories to major news outlets and appearing on daytime talk shows? Or would they remain on Phoenix with restored connections to the mainland and lead weekend survival workshops for adventurous eco-tourists? Such thoughts suggest one possible reason no sequel was written: Charlotte couldn’t realistically hold the islanders in exile forever, yet she didn’t have the heart to “rescue” them.

Those of us, therefore, who long to return to Phoenix Island must content ourselves with doing so only in our imaginations—or else with once more taking up Charlotte’s single, classic story. It is for that purpose that the 35th Anniversary Edition of Phoenix Island is being brought out—and also so that a new generation of readers, and many generations to come, may make that breathtaking journey themselves.

Book cover: Phoenix Island
Read the book!

Phoenix Island
By Charlotte Paul