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Empire Islands: Castaways, Cannibals, and Fantasies of Conquest

by Rebecca Weaver-Hightower
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2007
277 pp., illus. Trade, $70.50; paper, $23.50
ISBN: 0-8166-4863-8; ISBN: 0-8166-4862-X.

Reviewed by Rick Mitchell
Department of English
California State University, Northridge


Rebecca Weaver-Hightower’s Empire Islands: Castaways, Cannibals, and Fantasies of Conquest provides a comprehensive overview of Western castaway tales, primarily from the heyday of British imperialism, and it includes a final chapter that leaps to the present in order to examine some recent U.S. films and TV castaway shows–such as Cast Away and Survivor, the "reality" TV program–which the author reads as cultural embodiments of "neo-imperialism." This compendium-like volume's primary focus, however, is on Western, colonial-period, island castaway stories, including some theatrical parodies, such as British pantomimes from the nineteenth century. While frequently referring back to Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, as well as to other colonial tales, Empire Islands emphasizes that popular "castaway island narratives shaped a positive image of the colonial enterprise and spread fantasies of imperial legitimacy" (p. 39). According to the author, these narratives "both recodify the larger dynamics of colonization and consumption and psychologically enable those processes by presenting them as natural" (p. 39). Thus, island castaway tales are powerful agents of colonial socialization.

Although Empire Islands will introduce most readers to some island castaway narratives with which they are unfamiliar, much of the volume covers familiar territory regarding colonialism and Western literary production. Yet the book does offer some fresh arguments. Weaver-Hightower asserts, for example, that although Western writers often refer, metaphorically, to land claimed by colonizers as female, the colonized island is more male-like than other types of colonized land masses. "(T)he body that the island represents is a manly body," she says early on, "meaning that Empire Islands engages and challenges previous critical work examining discourse of the colonizable land as a female body" (p. xi). To help prove her point, she shows how the "fantasy of masculine bodily discipline" (p. 50) within several castaway tales helps European colonizers to be confident in "their control and superiority over their Others" (pp. 50-51). The castaway's ability to maintain heteronormative discipline over his body while stranded on an island implies that the male castaway deserves to possess the island, which also becomes disciplined, and thus male-like, as a result of the castaway's actions upon it. The successful male castaway/ disciplinarian, for example, often domesticates island animals, creates orderly plots of land for farming, builds Western-like living arrangements, and even "improves" indigenous peoples, who, like Crusoe's Friday, become faithful servants. The male fantasy of possessing a land that he re-makes in his masculine, disciplined image is, the book argues, a crucial ideological element of the island castaway tale:

"The popular narrative, which dramatized those fantasies of contrasting gendered bodies, recodified fears of threatened or unstable imperialism onto the circumspect, safe island and further into the well-managed body of the male castaway at the center of the island." (p. 51)

Subsequently, "island narratives often worked to legitimize imperialism by depicting colonization as a natural process of the disciplined male body" (p. 193).

The writing of Empire Islands, which features many relatively brief sections of analysis, clearly entailed an enormous amount of research. And for those seeking a general survey of the Western, colonial castaway tale and related criticism, this book could suffice as an introduction. Yet Empire Island's compendium-like approach remains somewhat problematic, since its relentless brief references to a long line of critical works, recurrent themes, and a variety of castaway tales can make the work feel at times more like an encyclopedia than a coherent, fully developed volume of cultural analysis. It is also unclear why the writer chooses to focus primarily on colonial texts and include a final chapter on Hollywood's recent castaway stories while eschewing significant discussion of radical, postcolonial appropriations of popular castaway tales such as Robinson Crusoe and The Tempest. Weaver-Hightower does mention several important postcolonial revisions of these texts, such as Derek Walcott's Pantomime–an interrogation of Defoe's Crusoe, which is a serious drama and not, as Weaver-Hightower describes, "a pantomime"–Aimé Césaire's A Tempest, and J.M. Coetzee's Foe, yet she forgoes discussing them.

Critiques of Western colonial culture and "neo-imperialist" Hollywood can be useful, and there is much to be gleaned from Weaver-Hightower's extensive research. But a more dialogical approach to the island castaway narrative–one that would include, for example, analyses of both Western colonialist tales and revolutionary, postcolonial revisions–could help to make Empire Islands more relevant, today, when marginalized communities–including many from actual islands, and from such metaphorical "islands" as neoliberal free trade zones, "the border," and war zones–face increasingly complex struggles against newer and perhaps more virulent strains of unfettered imperialism.



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