Sole Survivor: A Novel

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In a sweeping, refreshingly different novel of three loners against the sea, two men and a women who share life on a lonely Pacific island are forced to come to terms with themselves, one another, and the encroaching world.
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Overview

In a sweeping, refreshingly different novel of three loners against the sea, two men and a women who share life on a lonely Pacific island are forced to come to terms with themselves, one another, and the encroaching world.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A spirited woman invades the solitude and solidarity of two male residents of a New Zealand backwater bay in Australian novelist Hansen's (Psycho Cat) newest mixture of adventure and romance. Abandoning her claustrophobic life as a mainland marketing representative, Rose Tretheway moves into a cottage she has inherited on remote Wreck Bay on the coast of the Great Barrier Island. There she encounters hostile neighbors: Red O'Hara, a former WWII POW in Burma, who is barely functional, and Angus McLeod, a crusty Scottish ex-policeman who retired to the island to write children's books. Tretheway quickly begins a problematic affair with the shell-shocked O'Hara and then indulges in a fling with a local naval officer. Her romantic life gets more complicated when the curmudgeonly McLeod, after trying to force her off the island, does an about-face and tries to talk her into having a child, hoping to live out his parenting fantasies as a secondary father figure behind either O'Hara or the officer. Real life intrudes on the romantic antics in the form of a poaching Japanese fishing trawler that threatens both the livelihood of the inhabitants and the delicate ecology of the island. The narrative chugs along effectively despite some dubious scenes that call into question the motives of the various protagonists, and despite a climax that's downright bizarre. Hansen does a fine job of depicting island life in the 1960s, and he invents an appealingly idiosyncratic cast of characters, but much of this long and ponderously narrated book fails to generate suspense. Agent, Jillian Manus. (Mar.)
Kirkus Reviews
Charming misfits-in-paradise idyll from British-born, Australia-based novelist Hansen, in which love and kindness bloom improbably among three social outcasts on a remote corner of New Zealand's Great Barrier Island.

Hansen's turn at the eternal triangle begins when Rosie Trethewey, a spunky, pre-feminist divorced psychologist, takes a break from her job as an Auckland marketing researcher for toilet-bowl cleaning products to investigate a cottage bequeathed to her by a former patient. Rosie discovwers the shack on the wild southern tip of Great Barrier Island. Despite its awkwardly located outhouse and refractory woodstove, she finds its isolation an answer to unvoiced prayers. But her arrival provokes confusion in her oddball neighbors Red O'Hara, a handsome but demented workaholic survivor of a Japanese POW camp, and Angus McLeod, a misanthropic retired policeman who works off his repressed paternal urges by writing children's books. Fearing that Rosie will usher in the civilized complications they dread, Angus and Red dismiss her as an ignorant woman not cut out for the rigors of wilderness life. Such treatment only inspires Rosie to stay, proving Angus wrong, and nurture Red's wounded psyche, if not take him to bed. Rosie achieves every goal, though not without moments of comic discomfort (men keep interrupting her every time she wants to soak in the tub) and visits from the breezy but not sleazy Navy Lt. Commander Michael "Mickey" Finn, who, in addition to sharing Rosie's bed, wants Red to get proof that the wily Japanese Captain Shimojo Seiichi is fishing illegally within New Zealand's territorial waters. Red `s discovery of a cache of military explosives gives the bickeringislanders the power to blow Seiichi sky-high.

Paced so slowly that it might as well have been written on island time, but, still, Hansen's feel-good screwball romance is sufficiently sexy and exotic to build him a stateside following. .

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684863252
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 3/21/2000
  • Edition description: 1 SCRIBNER
  • Pages: 432
  • Product dimensions: 5.27 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.91 (d)

First Chapter

Chapter One

Red O'Hara woke at first light convinced that he should be dead and ashamed that he wasn't. There was nothing unusual about this. Every day began the same way. He pushed aside his mosquito net and glanced quickly around the bare wooden slat walls of his bedroom. He needed to confirm that he was safe in his bedroom and not back in hell. He rose and walked to the window to begin another day of discipline and routine, to realize the objective the doctors had insisted he set himself.

"Progress will only come through setting objectives and achieving them," they'd said smugly, cleverly transferring the blame for their own lack of progress onto him. One day Red had surprised them by obliging. He wrote a single word in large childish letters and taped the sheet of paper to the wall above his bed.

"Survive," was all it said.

His doctors had encouraged him to write more but in the end had to make do with what they'd got. They didn't think survival was much of an objective, but to Red it had seemed like an insurmountable mountain. They thought survival was the means to an end. Red thought it was the means of avoiding one.

The window had no curtains. The bush and isolation guaranteed Red's privacy. Barely two hundred people lived on the whole of Great Barrier Island, and only three were sufficiently antisocial to live on the northern end in the wilds around Wreck Bay. Both his neighbors kept their distance.

The sun was still well short of the horizon as Red slipped into his routine. Exercise, breakfast, housework, shower. Only then could he face up to the other duties his survival demanded. He allowed himself a few moments of deep breathing to calm his mindd, he lit both rings on his propane stove, put on the kettle for a cup of tea and a pot for his rice. He opened the door of his fridge, grabbed a jug of powdered milk, a bowl of fish stock in which to boil his rice, and a small steamed snapper. He closed the door quickly to keep in the cold. Once the rice was on, he broke the steamed snapper into small pieces, laid it in a bamboo steamer and placed it over the simmering rice to warm through. Archie sat on his rug beside the cold stove and whined in anticipation. There was a strong chance that no one else in the whole of New Zealand sat down to a breakfast remotely like this.

While the rice cooked, Red had another ritual to perform. He opened his screen door and walked along the veranda to the end railing, where the hill sloped abruptly away to the sea and not even his grandfather kauri tree came between him and the rising sun. Sunrise still disturbed him even though he knew he had nothing to fear. Not anymore. No Kimigayo anthem, no standing on parade, no forced labor, no beatings. Once the sun burst free from the sea he returned to the kitchen. Another day, another challenge had begun.

He divided the rice meticulously between two bowls, shared the flesh of the snapper equally, but laid the fish head on Archie's portion. Red liked sucking out the eyes and the cheeks, but so did Archie, and it was the border collie's turn. Red was never anything but scrupulously fair.

"Good to the grain," his mates in the camp used to say, even though the rice they shared was often green or rotting. They liked it when Red served, and there were never any arguments or fights when he did. Red and Archie always had breakfast on the veranda except when rain or high winds made it too uncomfortable. Red ate at a table he'd fashioned from timbers salvaged from the old mine battery at Oreville, while Archie had his bowl on a square of linoleum. Fish was a delicacy neither of them tired of, though the overriding sentiment that governed Red's appreciation was gratitude. He was grateful that there was something filling and life sustaining to put in his bowl. Anyone who'd ever been forced to go without would understand.

After breakfast came the clean-up. The dishes had to be scrubbed immediately, along with pots, pans, countertops, sink and little square of linoleum. Cleanliness meant hygiene, and hygiene was another key to survival. After the dishes, Red stripped his bed and folded the blankets and sheets according to regulations, and set them in a neat stack at the foot of his bed. He completed the housekeeping by chasing a broom around the floors and then a mop around the kitchen area. He did this every day.

His shower followed. In summer he used a watering can suspended from a beam that ran between his shack and the laundry and was fed from a hose that ran from his water tank. The water was cold and bracing even in midsummer. Red wasted neither time nor water in washing his body and hair. He scrubbed himself vigorously with Sunlight soap, which the makers had intended for laundry use. It was cheap, lasted and did the job.

Once he'd showered he released his chooks -- his five hens and rooster -- from the chookhouse, threw them rice and scraps he'd deliberately saved from dinner and breakfast, and gathered their eggs in exchange. He checked his vegetable garden next. There were no locks on his doors or windows, yet his garden was securely fenced in with heavy chain mesh, which was also sunk into the ground so that no animal could burrow beneath it. A heavy bolt held the gate closed, and an equally heavy lock secured the bolt. Pieces of cloth and milk-bottle tops fluttered from strings that crosshatched the plot to keep birds off. Red opened the gate and worked his way between the lines of vegetables, searching for weeds and snails. Neither stood a chance of escaping detection.

Red's final task was to attend to his wall calendar. Keeping track of the days was important because it had always been important. It was important in Burma, where they'd made their own calendars, each a log of survival, charting the time between the present and home and family, and promising one day a reunion. Keeping a calendar up to date was proof of survival and a declaration of defiance. The twenty-fifth day of February 1966 was consigned to history with the stroke of a pencil. Through rigid routine, discipline and the sameness of his days, Red achieved his objective. He survived. He believed he had defied the predictions of his doctors and had his life back under control. Red lived a simple life of self-delusion.

Red had risen from his bed knowing he had two jobs to do that day. He kicked away the wedge that held the laundry door slightly ajar, so that a breeze could flow through, and entered the cool, dark room. He had a favor to ask and he hated asking for favors. He also had a sick man to see, something else that impinged on his day. But he'd learned about obligations in Burma, and obligations to the sick were sacrosanct. Two bush safes, light timber frames encased in fine mesh, hung from a rafter. In one were eight smoked snapper, all around six or seven pounds. In t he other were row upon row of sprats and piper, split up the middle, salted and sun dried. The fish weren't only for himself but to give. Years on the railway had taught him the value of the gift. You could never doubt the stamp of a man who willingly gave his food to others. Red helped himself to two smoked snapper and set off along the pathway to the Scotsman's bach, Archie trotting along at his heels. It was barely seven-thirty but Red knew Angus McLeod would be up and about. He also knew he wouldn't be welcome. And neither would Archie.

Two hundred yards down the trail, Red left the path and threaded his way through the ferns, tea trees and pungas to the big old grandfather kauri. He liked to touch the giant trunk, to feel its age and let it know that it was safe. No one would ever take this tree, survivor of centuries and of ruthless logging. Archie waited and watched. There was nothing odd about what his master and mate was doing. It was something else he did every day.

Red made his way farther and farther down the slope before branching off to the right where the trail forked. Up in the canopy he could hear fantails and tiny goldfinches and, occasionally, catch glimpses of them. The pathway turned crimson as it wound around a clump of pohutukawas that had found shelter and shed their blossoms beneath the ridge of Bernie's Head. They'd been doing this for six or seven hundred years before Bernie had thought to share his name. Red walked on uphill until he came to the clearing and paused. The old Scot was cantankerous at best and loathed visitors.

"Hello, Angus!" Red called, and waited, keeping the Scot's vegetable garden between himself and the house. He looked along the lines of vegetab les and had to fight back the urge to pluck out the young weeds he saw growing there. There shouldn't be weeds. And there should be a proper fence, not just a sagging run of chicken wire. Red had tried to fix both one morning when he'd called by to drop off some fresh snapper, and had copped an earful for his trouble. Still, it wasn't right and it troubled him. He'd seen men beaten senseless for less.

"It's you. What is it you want this time?"

"I'm going round to Fitzroy."

"I see. Wait there. I'll get my list."

As the old Scot turned back into his shack, a bundle of fur barreled down the steps and bounded over toward Red. Archie whined with excitement.

"Stay, Archie," said Red. "Hello, Bonnie. Say hello to Archie." Bonnie purred like an outboard motor and rubbed herself up against Red's legs. What cat wouldn't love a man with such a fishy air about him? Bonnie purred and rolled and also rubbed up against Archie, who bent his nose down to greet the cat Maori-fashion. Both cat and dog were black and white, as if neither owner could afford color. Bonnie responded without fear. They'd met before, and Archie had a fishy aura about him as well.

"I don't encourage that. I'll not have Bonnie bringing in fleas."

Red glanced up into the humorless face on the veranda above.

"All we're bringing is smoked snapper."

"Don't you be smart, now! If you're intending one of those fish for me then I thank you for it." The Scot stepped down from the veranda and skirted around the vegetable plot. "Here is my shopping list."

"Here's your fish." Red took a deep breath. This was the part he hated. "I need to borrow some diesel."

The old Scot glowered but had little option. Besides, the madman was saving him a trip. Even so, Red had to learn not to use him as a convenience. "This is not the first time. Can you not monitor your levels more closely?"

"I had to rescue birds."

"Aye, well." Angus had also rescued birds from Japanese longlines and moderated his tone. "Mind you replace it, now."

"I will."

"In full, mind."

"Yeah."

"See you do. And for God's sake, man..."

"...make yourself decent." Red finished the sentence for him. "Heel."

Red turned and Archie followed so abruptly that Bonnie, who had been rubbing herself against the dog's front legs at an angle of roughly thirty-five degrees, toppled onto her side and rolled down the slope after them. Bonnie was like a football covered in fur, kept fat by the old Scot not so much from affection but to deter her from catching the native birds. Bonnie, birds and children in general -- though rarely in the specific -- were the only creatures on earth the old Scot cared a damn about.

Red retraced his steps by the pohutukawas and their carpet of decaying red needles, and began to climb back up the trail to where it split below the grandfather kauri and the gray soil gave way to yellowish clay. He'd made the trip up to Bernie's every day for the past month and sometimes twice a day. The old man needed help. Red always brought Bernie food, cleaned and cooked. Lately he'd had to bed-wash him, but Red was no stranger to that. Bernie was always affable and grateful, but he was just filling in time before he died. Red had seen that happen before, in Burma.

He walked up to the shack's front door and shooed the chooks off the veranda. He knocked loudly on the frame. The groan from within noted his arrival. An empty sherry jug lay on its side on th e kitchen counter, keeping company with the previous night's soiled dishes. Red opened the door of the old kerosene fridge. The shelves were spotless because Red had cleaned them the day before, and empty except for a quarter pound of Anchor butter, a jar of homemade plum jam and a jug of milk. Red took out the milk and butter and set them on the kitchen table alongside the smoked fish. He wandered into the bedroom. The room stank, bitter and vinegary. He opened the window.

"You okay?"

Bernie groaned and tried to sit up. He wheezed as he tried to draw breath. Phlegm caught in his throat, and he doubled over the side of the bed, head down, helpless in a fit of coughing. Red held him and beat firmly on the back of his ribs until Bernie finally coughed up a dense gob of mucus onto the floor. Bernie's face had turned crimson, and his forehead was bathed in sweat. He shivered. There were pinkish bubbles in among the mucus. Red pulled the blankets back over the old man and laid his head back on the pillow.

"Okay?"

"Yeah. Sorry, mate."

By the bed was a roll of toilet paper, which Bernie tore up and used to spit into during the night when the coughing took hold. Red took some to mop up Bernie's latest contribution. He went out to the back door, where he'd left the mop and pail the day before, half filled the bucket with water and Janola disinfectant and returned. He collected the sodden lumps of toilet paper, took them out and threw them into the kitchen waste bin, knowing he'd have to put a match to them later. Then he mopped down the bedroom floor. He couldn't help himself. Infections bred and spread in filth, and he couldn't allow it. The Aussies had known that and wasted no time getting organi zed, but the British soldiers had learned the hard way. Maybe it was the heat that got to them, or maybe they just hadn't understood. They'd died of dysentery, diphtheria, cholera, malaria, typhoid, gangrene and septicemia, but Red suspected they'd died as much from ignorance. They'd died where the Aussies had survived, died in greater numbers at any rate.

"How about a cuppa?" Bernie had propped himself up on his elbows and was shuffling his pillows around behind him as a back rest. "Man could die of thirst around here."

Red nodded. He never knew with Bernie how much was real and how much was put on for his benefit. He knew that Bernie had lived for years on a disability pension because of a back injury suffered on a building site in Auckland that prevented him from engaging in any further manual labor, the only type of work he was qualified to do. But when Red had first come to the Barrier, he'd seen the old reprobate haul his timber half-cabin boat up onto the beach single-handed, and chop through manuka scrub as well as any Maori work gang. He'd also put in a vegetable plot, carted buckets of topsoil over the hills from the floodplains, planted rose bushes and fruit trees. Rumor had it that there was nothing wrong with his back, either, when he'd gone down to Thames to visit one of his old girlfriends. But, in truth, Bernie looked as bad as Red had ever seen him and possibly even worse. The pink bubbles were not a good sign.

"Want some poached smoked snapper?"

"Nuh."

"You're going to eat it anyway." This was a conversation they had every day, and it always ended the same. Red took the mop and pail and put them outside the back door. He scrubbed his hands, as thoroughly as any doctor pre paring for surgery, before putting the fish on to heat through and making tea.

"You gunna let your mate in?"

"Okay. Archie..."

The dog needed no second invitation and galloped into the bedroom. By the time Red had poured the tea and stirred in Bernie's two spoonfuls of sugar, the fish was ready. He flipped it onto a plate and took it in to the old man.

"Don't give any to Archie." Red went back out to the kitchen for the two cups of tea. Archie was licking his lips when Red returned.

Bernie ate without speaking but certainly not in silence. He'd lived alone so long virtually all of the social graces had slipped away. He chewed with his mouth open, smacked his lips and frequently stuck a finger in his maw to guide his food toward the few remaining teeth that were still operational. He also had the habit of scratching himself whenever parts needed scratching, in company or otherwise. Not surprisingly, he never thought Red's nakedness worthy of mention. Bernie wasn't too fussed about clothes himself. He'd eaten half of the fish before his cough started up again. Red took his plate.

"Drink some tea."

The old man grabbed the cup and gulped a couple of mouthfuls. He handed the cup back to Red and sank back onto his pillows. He'd begun to sweat again.

"Mate, I'm knackered."

"You'll be all right."

"Nuh...not this time. Had enough anyway."

"You've been saying that for years."

"Yeah, but I mean it."

For once Red was inclined to believe him. Bernie did look knackered. "You'll feel better after a wash."

"You can give me a wash, but I won't feel no better."

"We'll see. Give you a shave, too."

"No! Sit, mate. Got something I want to tell you."

Red sat back down on the edge of the bed.

"Wrote a letter last night. Yeah, knew that would surprise you. You still going round to Fitzroy?"

Red nodded.

"Yeah, well, I want you to witness the letter and take it with you. It's there on the tallboy."

Red reached over, picked it up and read it. It was Bernie's will. The writing was hesitant and spidery, and the lines curved away to the right. For all that, it was clearly legible.

"Dear Rosie, I'm dying," it said, "and I thought I'd leave my bach and things to you. The bach isn't much, just two bedrooms, living room, kitchen and bathroom, but it's been a good home to me. It's yours if you want it. Forget about it if you don't, 'cause it isn't worth much. Garden's got some nice roses, though. Thanks for being my friend. Hope you grew up good-looking. Yours sincerely, Bernard Arbuthnot." Rosie's name and Green Lane Hospital were written at the top of the sheet of paper. Red stared at the letter, unable to come to terms with the contents.

"Met her when I had TB and a bit of an alcohol problem. Her dad treated me for the booze. What a bugger he was, but she was nice. He wouldn't know a cop was up him till he blew his whistle. She came with him sometimes, a bit of a tomboy. She used to sneak me in a bottle of beer. They never could work out where I got it from. What's the matter with you?"

"You're leaving your place to a woman?"

"Yeah. She was a good girl, that one. Real cheeky."

"A woman?"

"Yeah!" Bernie cackled. "Thought that would get ya! Oh, she was a beauty, hair as black as any Maori's, and wicked black eyes. Always up to mischief. Stole fags for me, too. One day I suggested to her that an occasional nip of scotch wouldn't go astray, so she started filling up an old co rdial bottle for me. Trouble was, she knew that if she filled the whole bottle with scotch her father would realize someone was nicking it, so she had this idea. She filled it with a drop from every bottle they had. Mate, I'd never had a cocktail like it. Had everything in it! Bloody Pimm's and chartreuse, bloody crème de menthe, and that bloody eggnog stuff. Had whisky, rum, gin, vodka and I don't know what. The only way I could drink it was in my coffee. They took it off me before I was halfway through. My singing gave me away." He burst out laughing, stopped when he started to choke.

"You reckon this will find her?"

"Who knows? If it does, it does. Long time. I told her, though, told her every time she came in that I'd remember her in my will."

"Reckon she'll come?"

"If she does, she does."

"Wish you hadn't done that, Bernie."

"Aw, ya never know. Ya might thank me one day, a pretty woman and a good-looking bloke like you." He started laughing again. "Never know, do ya?"

"I'll get your things from the bathroom."

"Not yet." Bernie coughed and gestured to Red to sit down. "Something else. I want to be cremated."

"Why?"

"I want you to toss my ashes into the ocean, out past Aiguilles Island where I used to fish. Used to dive there a bit, too. My secret possie, my secret spot. On the rise where the shells are."

"What shells? Paper nautilus?"

"Nuh. Army shells." The old man was cut off by another bout of coughing. Red handed him the toilet paper just in time. "Where they dumped the old munitions after the war." Bernie's face had gone from wax to scarlet beneath a sickly sheen of sweat. All the talking was taking its toll. "Christ! I just might decide to kick the bucket today . Nobody's supposed to know about dumping the shells, but they used to take me out with them when they wanted to do a spot of fishing on the sly." He began to laugh, but his laughter quickly turned to a rattling cough that snapped his breath. Red rolled him over and stuffed some more toilet paper in his hand. Bernie coughed and hawked and sank back exhausted on his bed. The smell of his sweat rose bitter and pungent. That was what had stunk the room out. Still, Red had smelled worse, a lot worse.

"Tell me later."

"Might not be a later." Bernie slowly drew in deep breaths until his breathing was back to normal. Red noticed tears in Bernie's eyes, but that could just have been from the effort of talking. "I'll give you the markers. Line 'em up and you're right over the rise."

"I didn't know there was a rise."

"Neither did the army. It's like a small island that never quite made it to the surface. I got them to drop the shells on it because I thought I might go back later and salvage some for scrap. Now listen carefully."

Red listened until Bernie had finished.

"Now you can give me a wash, if it makes you happy. And Red, when you go to Fitzroy, do you think you could leave Archie here?"


A normal man might have welcomed the prospect of an attractive young woman coming to share his lonely neck of the woods, but all Red could see was disruption to his daily life. Women didn't belong. They didn't belong in the camps and they didn't belong at Wreck Bay. His day had begun like any other, yet suddenly Bernie had pulled the rug from under him. His whole world hung in the balance. Bernie's letter threatened change, the thing Red feared most. Change brought risk, the risk that he'd no longer be able to cope. The Japanese fishermen threatened change, challenged his existence by stealing his fish and by destroying the ocean bottom so no fish would ever return. He could fight them but he couldn't fight Bernie's letter. There was nothing he could do about it, nothing at all. He was powerless and bound by duty. He could not deny a dying man the right to leave his few possessions to whomever he chose. The wishes of a dying man were also sacrosanct.

Red couldn't get Bernie's letter out of his mind. He thought about it constantly as he stopped off at his shack to grab a pair of shorts and a sweater, and made his way down to the beach. He thought about it as he fitted his forty-four-gallon drum onto the jib arm at the end of the jetty and loaded it onto his boat. He worked hard to stop himself thinking, but still the thoughts persisted. What would a woman do at Wreck Bay?

The double-prowed lifeboat was immaculate, its clinker hull kept brilliantly white. According to hearsay, it had once swung from davits on the ocean liner Oronsay, though some claimed it was from the Orsova. Somehow it had ended up in the hands of the whaling company, and Red had taken it over when the station closed down. It had been fitted out with a Cummins diesel that was more powerful than need be and something of a glutton for fuel. But Red could squeeze economy out of it, never feeding it more revs than the hull or conditions could use. Diesel was expensive.

Each resident of Wreck Bay kept a drum at the jetty and another at their house. They drew diesel off into four-gallon tins for the long haul up the hill to fuel their generators, and used hoses and gravity to refuel their boats. Red filled a four-ga llon jerry can from the Scotsman's drum and funneled the contents into his fuel tank. He repeated the process twice to be on the safe side, then filled his emergency can. That was sixteen gallons he owed, and a debt he'd pay in full. Red was good to the grain in all his dealings. He checked to see that his freshwater tank was full and his life jacket where it should be, and cast off. It was strange motoring out of the bay without Archie standing up on the bow, telling the gulls where they were headed. It didn't feel right. It was not how things were done.

Red was always cautious before putting to sea because there was little chance of hailing another vessel if he got into difficulties. Although Great Barrier Island was only fifty-five miles by sea from Auckland, New Zealand's largest city and main port, it might just as well have been five hundred and fifty. Only twenty-five miles long north to south and ten miles at its widest, there was little reason for anyone to visit or live there once the logging had finished, the mines had petered out and the whaling station had closed. There were few roads and few guest houses to encourage visitors. The locals either worked farms or caught fish and crayfish for a living. Nobody got rich.

Red was fortunate that the land around Wreck Bay on the northeast coast was too rugged and too poor for commercial cultivation and had proved too inaccessible for the loggers. The forbidding cliffs that lined the coast did not encourage visitors, either. As a result the entire northern end was left to the seagulls, terns and gannets. Only Wreck Bay provided shelter, and the three bachs were well sited to avoid the worst of the storms. It was possible to live there if you were sufficiently bloody-minded.

Red motored due north toward Aiguilles Island off the northern tip. With the tide almost full and the seas slight, he decided to take the narrow channel south of the island. Normally, even on a moderate swell, the surf pounded in on Aiguilles Island and Needles Point like heavy artillery, which was fair warning for all to give it a wide berth. He slipped through the channel and increased speed, swept around past Miners Head and across the mouth of Katherine Bay. Seagulls and gannets began diving on a school of kahawai. Even though a catch was guaranteed, Red was far too preoccupied to throw out a lure. Leaving Archie behind had unsettled him, but even worse was the prospect of a woman coming to live at Wreck Bay. It had taken him long enough to adjust to the Scotsman's arrival.

His keen eyes picked out the dorsals of two mako sharks, circling around the periphery of the feeding school. He knew what the predators were waiting for and it wasn't for kahawai. They were just a sideshow. The sharks were patrolling, waiting for the massive schools of migrating snapper, part of a never-changing cycle. Red had the utmost respect for never-changing cycles. He glanced up to the bow compartment where he'd stowed Bernie's letter, carefully protected inside his oilskins. Red also had the utmost respect for letters. He'd seen dying men survive because of them. He found it hard to reconcile the fact that letters, which could do so much good, could also do so much harm. He tried to imagine what would happen if the woman came. But why would any woman, perhaps even a beautiful one, want to come to Wreck Bay? Red didn't know much about women, but he knew enough about Wreck Bay to k now that it held nothing for them. Even the hardy Barrier women couldn't imagine why anybody -- male or female -- would want to live there. If they couldn't handle it, how could a city woman? The letter worried Red all the way from Wreck Bay to the Port Fitzroy wharf.


The store at Port Fitzroy was aptly named the Last Gasp. It was opened originally as a holiday canteen to service the summer yachties. The owner, Col Chadwick, maintained he called it the Last Gasp, not just because of its remoteness, but because of the objections and obstructions of the other residents who were opposed to change of any kind as a matter of principle, particularly since they hadn't thought of opening a store themselves. Once opened, the store instantly became indispensable to the point that the locals would have fought to prevent it closing. Col gave up his crayfishing to become full-time shopkeeper. The Last Gasp sold everything Red needed -- except alcohol, because the shop wasn't licensed. Col ordered in Bernie's jugs of sweet sherry anyway, on a nod-and-a-wink basis.

Red waited outside the store until Col had time to attend to him. The locals thought that was just another of Red's eccentricities. They still recalled the time he'd come ashore without remembering to put his pants on. But the fact was Red got claustrophobic in the little store with its crowded shelves. If anyone else came in while he was there he found it unbearable. The locals also still talked about the time he'd had one of his turns in the store. He waited outside until two visitors, guests of Fitzroy House, had left.

"G'day Red."

Red shook hands with Col Chadwick and handed over his two shopping lists. "And two jugs."

"How is the old bloke?"

"Not good. He wants this letter to go off to Auckland."

Col raised an eyebrow. Bernie had written a letter? "Okay. Anything else?"

"Need a hand with the diesel."

"No problem. I'll just fill your orders and walk down with you." Col trotted off with the orders. He glanced down at the envelope. Rosie Trethewey, Daughter of the Professor, Green Lane Hospital, Auckland. The handwriting was Red's. "Jeez," said Col to himself. "Helluva address."

Red fretted for Archie. It was hard to stand around without a dog. It wasn't right. They were a team, and splitting up only weakened them both. But the sick man needed company and that was all there was to it. Archie -- his Aussie mate in Burma -- would have stayed, he was certain of that. Archie had never let anyone down, never refused anyone. Red decided to walk on ahead to his boat and unload the empty drum. The simple mechanics of the job brought the woman back into his mind. How would she get by handling drums of fuel? How would she handle a boat and rounding Aiguilles in a blow? Old Bernie had done the wrong thing by them, no doubt about that. He hoped fervently Bernie had also done the wrong thing by the woman and she'd be smart enough to realize.

Red's boat was an oddity on the Barrier, where all boats, with the exception of the visiting yachts, were working boats of one kind or another and bore the scars of their trade. A wise man never had a picnic downwind from a beached fishing boat. Red used his thumbnail to scratch off seagull droppings. Wherever there were seagulls there was no place for idle hands. He hated idleness in the same way he abhorred dirt and untidiness. There was always something that needed attending to. He'd seen blo kes stop working one day and be dead the next. The two went together.

"I'm amazed you even let your boat get wet." Red looked up to see Col on the wharf above him, a carton of supplies under each arm. "Reckon I could eat my bloody dinner off it. I'll have to go back for the sherry."

They manhandled a fresh drum of diesel over to the edge of the wharf, secured it, swung out the jib arm and lowered the drum gingerly onto the deck. Red jumped aboard and untied the ropes.

"You seen the Jap longliner yet?"

Red looked up sharply at Col. "Tuna? I freed some birds."

"Nah. Snapper. I've been getting reports of a Jap longliner sending its dories in to within one or two miles of the shore, night after bloody night, all the way up from Mount Maunganui. He's following the bloody snapper, ripping out millions of the buggers. He's been working the Coromandel Peninsula for the last week. They reckon he was off Whitianga a couple of nights ago. He's not like the others. This bloke doesn't use lights. Bastard's ripping out the fish. Just wondered if he'd made it up as far as you."

"Tell the fisheries?"

"Reckon. Rang the fisheries but they already knew about it. Apparently the navy's been informed."

"They doing anything?"

"Dunno. They sent a Sunderland flying boat down around Great Mercury Island. Didn't come up with nothing."

"I'll keep an eye out."

Col smiled. He knew Red would, too, and it would serve the Japs right. He was still chuckling as he made his way back up to the store to fetch the two jugs of sherry. Red might not be able to do anything about the snapper the Japs had already stolen, but he'd give them something to think about if they tried to steal fish from his patch. Col tried to put himself in the place of the Japanese fishermen in their dories when a raging, naked Red descended upon them. What on earth would they think?

Copyright © 1997 by Derek Hanson

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Reading Group Guide

1. Survival is one of the main themes of Derek Hansen's novel and for each of the characters it seems to have a different meaning. Rosie, Red, and Angus have adopted a set of survival mechanisms that they use to cope with their situation. Describe some of the mechanisms that each employs. Discuss how these skills help them to survive. What defenses or rituals do you have that are important to your survival?

2. Hansen writes that Red was "grateful for the comfort and predictability of his routine," and throughout the novel, Red employs many rituals or routines to get him through the day. One of these is bringing his calendar up to date. What is the significance of this to him, and how does it help him survive? In addition, Red thinks "there was work to be done and an order for doing it," and he "hated idleness in the same way he abhorred dirt and untidiness." Why are order and cleanliness so important to Red? Consider how the order and consistency of Rosie's life in Auckland were debilitating to her. What does this say about their different natures?

3. Red is also very concerned about taking care of people. He cares for Bernie when he is dying and goes out of his way to check on Angus even though Angus is rude to him. Hansen writes that Red thinks "survival depended on helping people." Why is taking care of people so important to Red? Discuss the paradox of Red being a loner, but needing both to take care of people and having the company of his dog Archie.

4. The need for people is something that Red, Rosie, and Angus grapple with throughout the story. Describe how each feels about help and what this says about his/her character.

5. Hansen writes that work was Red'ssanctuary while Angus's refuge is his writing. What does work help Red to accomplish? What does writing do for Angus?

6. Angus is preoccupied with children. He writes books for children and wants Rosie to have his child. What do children represent to Angus? What is Angus hoping to accomplish through his association with children?

7. It is said around the island that Red "doesn't use his eyes to seduce women." Why doesn't Red care for women? What happened in his life that has put him off women? Angus also has a problem with women. What does Angus think about women and why does he feel this way?

8. When Rosie first arrives on the island, Angus and Red are disturbed by the presence of a woman. They are both afraid that she will upset things. What are they afraid of? What issues does she raise for each of them? What does she represent to them? What effect does her presence have on their lives? Is it positive or negative and in what ways?

9. Hansen spends a great deal of time in the novel investigating relationships between men and women. What is his view of relationships between the sexes? What is his view about the effect of Rosie's presence on the men's lives. Discuss Rosie's function in the novel and what she represents to the author?

10. Rosie seems to be very comfortable with her sexuality and with men. Why do you think it is easier for Rosie to find a man on a deserted island under difficult conditions than it was for her to find a mate in the more civilized conditions of Auckland? What is it about Rosie's character that would make this so? What do men represent to Rosie?

11. The past is another major theme in Sole Survivor. Give examples of how Red, Angus, and Rosie are shaped by their pasts and how their pasts affect their present lives. Does Hansen think one can escape from one's past? If so, how? If not, why not?

12. Each of the characters arrives on the island for his or her own reason. What drives each of them to leave civilization behind? What are the benefits to each of them in doing this? What are the risks? Hansen writes that "all three of them were fugitives." What is each of them fleeing and what is each of them looking for in going to the island? What is the failure that each character leaves behind in coming to the island?

13. The novel is also about healing. Rosie is an ex-doctor and Red was once in love with a nurse. In what way does each character heal during the course of the novel? In what way does each character grow? What is it that causes each of them to change?

14. Hansen spends a good part of the novel on the Japanese trawler subplot. Why do you think he devotes so much time to this? How does it affect each of the character's lives and relationships? How does it tie in with the themes of survival, the past, and healing? For example, how does it function to help them heal and deal with their past?

15. To what does the title Sole Survivor refer? Who or what is the Sole Survivor?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2001

    amazing story

    Great view of human survival

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