Synopsis of Islands
Stuck inside a giant pyramid in a future devastated by global warming, Saskia is bored with her artificial life and yearns to experience the natural world. But unbeknownst to her and the other inhabitants of the pyramids, there are still survivors living outside. Abbie, a descendent of those who took refuge in the cooler mountains when the climate changed, is equally unaware that Saskia’s enclosed world still exists. Using her hunting and tracking skills, she and her brothers struggle to survive in a threatening wilderness overrun with invasive species, and dream of a place where they can live in peace.
The death of Saskia’s grandfather and Abbie’s search for a lost village eventually bring the two stories together. Now, each girl must choose whether to return to the familiar past or to step into the unknown.
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Excerpt from Islands
"Saskia opens a small red box on the dresser and peers down at the three claws, jawbone and petrified owl pellet that lie inside, all given to her by her grandfather years ago. Two months have passed now since the last time she saw him, just after his operation, and Saskia feels despondent and guilty. They used to be close when she was younger and her family would visit her grandparents in the West Pyramid almost every month. But now, more then three years since her grandmother died and they put him in a nursing home, they rarely make the trip, and her grandfather has changed, in her mind, to an image and a voice that exist somewhere else, far away from her everyday life.
She runs her fingertip along the dull tip of one of the claws for what must be the hundredth time. Her grandfather told her that it belonged to a sea turtle that lived in the ocean long ago. Saskia imagines the turtle drifting through miles of clear water and it seems like the farthest thing away from her in the world. She lets out a deep sigh, wanting so badly to touch something new, something not made by people. Gradually the pills take effect and the tangled knot of thoughts inside her head begins to unwind and dissipate. Her tight fist slowly opens and her teeth unclench."
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Questions for Discussion
Topics for Research & Discussion
- Do you agree with the way the future southwestern U.S. is portrayed in Islands? If so, why? If not, how do you think the future will be different?
- Would you rather live inside the pyramids or in the mountains? Why?
- What are some of the parallels between Saskia and Abbie’s lives? Think about their families, their feelings, and their journeys.
- How are the ways that Saskia and Abbie view their families similar and/or different?
- How are the ways that Saskia and Abbie view society similar and/or different?
- How are the ways that Saskia and Abbie view nature similar and/or different?
- Compare and contrast Saskia and Abbie’s religious beliefs. What about Esteban and Tsultrum?
- How are Dakota and Dober similar? How are they different?
- Why does Saskia start crying at the end of Chapter 1?
- Why does Saskia like to look at birds so much?
- Why is Saskia so annoyed at her little brother?
- Besides being afraid of what they might find in the lowlands, why is Tsultrum hesitant to leave the cave?
- Saskia thinks Flower Day is stupid and says that sometimes she thinks “they make up holidays just to keep us occupied.” Why does she think it is a stupid holiday? What do you like or dislike about holidays?
- While worrying about his girlfriend breaking up with him, Esteban wonders: But if you always know it won’t last forever, then what’s the point of pretending? What does he mean?
- Why do Saskia, Dakota, Esteban, and Rose take so many pills?
- Saskia often voices her frustration at the apathy and disturbing contentment she sees in her enclosed society. Are there things about your society that frustrate you? What can you do to change them?
- When Abbie, Tsultrum and Dober are stuck up in the tree, surrounded by the feral dogs, Abbie says: “Maybe that’s why they’re so crazy. Maybe dogs were pets for so long that they’ve forgotten how to be wild.” What does it mean to be wild? To be a pet?
- Saskia lectures Esteban and her father about eating meat because the animals live in inhumane conditions. Where does the meat eaten by Americans come from? Write down everything you’ve eaten today and where it comes from. What do you know about the ways that your food is grown and processed? How can you find out more about the origins of your food?
- Inside the talking tree, Abbie and Tsultrum argue about how people are different from the other animals. Who do you agree with most? Why?
- After Tsultrum is killed, Abbie almost gives up and accepts the fact that their journey has failed. Describe an experience you’ve had where you felt like giving up, but then found the strength to try again.
- The teletriangle reports that “a new branch of scientists has recently made the argument that enough time has passed for many introduced species, like the house sparrow and star-thistle, to be considered native…Biologist Nigel Thrace argues that since people in the southwest have been separated from the natural world for so long, introduced animals, which have survived for hundreds of years, should now be considered a natural part of the environment.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
- Why are the people who live in the pyramids vegetarians?
- Why do you think all the vehicles that Abbie, Tsultrum and Dober find were abandoned? Do you think people will still drive hundreds years from now? What are the positive and negative impacts of driving on your life? On the lives of others living right now? On the lives of others who will live in the future? Are you responsible for preventing negative impacts on others, whether they are living now or will live in the future?
- If you lived in the pyramids and found a secret government keycard, would you take the restricted elevator underground? Why or why not? What factors would you consider while making your decision?
- If you discovered the secret mine and the enslaved workers, what would you do? Would you share your discovery if you knew you were in danger? Why or why not?
- If you were Saskia, would you go back to the pyramids to share your discovery, or stay outside and try to survive in the outside world? Why or why not? What skills would you need to learn in order to survive?
- If you were Abbie or Dober, would you go with Saskia to the pyramids or would you stay in the village to make a new life by the sea? Why or why not?
- On the beach, Abbie says: “Maybe in a world where everyone is safe all the time, there isn’t any reason to pray.” What does she mean by this? Do you agree with her? Do you have religious or spiritual beliefs that have been influenced by the world you live in?
- The author writes that in the meeting between Saskia and Abbie he was trying to recreate the first contact between Europeans and Native Americans. What are the differences between this encounter and the meeting of Columbus and the Native Americans he first encountered?
- Is the epilogue a happy ending? Why or why not?
About the Inspiration for Islands
- Research the causes of global warming on the internet. What are the main global warming gasses? How does global warming work? Is it the same everywhere?
- The author says that the setting of Islands is not what he thinks will happen in the future, but it is a possible future that he hopes will never come to pass. What do you think the world will be like a few hundred years in the future because of global warming? Research the affects of global warming in the state and city where you live. If you live on the coast, could your city one day be underwater? How might people adapt to the change in climate? What about the animals? Plants?
- What are some ways you can produce less global warming gasses? What can your city do? Your country? What is your city/country doing right now?
- What is conservation? What conservation methods are used inside the pyramids?
- Research the different survival skills used by Abbie, Tsultrum and Dober, such as making fire by friction and making cordage from plants, and try it yourself.
- What are some of the nonnative species in your area? Which ones are invasive? Where did they come from? What adaptations make them dominant? What native species are these invaders affecting?
- Go on a hike to a nearby park, a forest, a meadow, a creek, the ocean, your backyard, or just look outside your window. Try to identify as many birds as possible in a bird guide.
- Look up the names of all the birds and other animals that appear in Islands. Try to figure out what the names of the birds are whose names are not given by their descriptions.
- Go outside and look for animal tracks. Try to identify what animal made them. Follow a trail that you find for as far as you can. Make a tracking sand box in your classroom or home. Try to identify the last track that Saskia sees in the Epilogue.
- Research the history of silver mining in Potosi, Bolivia. Although the people now working in the mines are no longer slaves like they were under Spanish rule, what are the conditions like today? Research how gold and other precious stones are mined all over the world and make sure you know where jewelry comes from when you buy it.
Islands first began as a series of oil pastel drawings I did one summer while living in the Sierra Nevada. In the original story, everything inside the pyramids was black and white, while outside, the natural world was full of uncontrollable color. Now, this seems ironic, since in the final version of the novel, Abbie and her brothers only see the outside world in shades of gray, and the pyramids are full of color.
Another major change in the development of the novel took place when I moved to Flagstaff, Arizona to go to graduate school. Originally the creatures outside the pyramids were fantastical -- like dinosaurs and tigers -- but when I finally decided to place the story in the southwestern United States, these imaginary creatures became real animals. At that time I was working toward a Master’s degree in creative writing, but much of my free time was spent researching birds, global warming, invasive species and oil depletion in order to write this story.
I always knew Saskia was going to be a birder, but I hadn’t done enough bird watching to really get into her skin. So while writing, I spent many afternoons with my binoculars pressed against my window, watching birds, just like her.
Saskia: A seventeen-year-old girl who lives inside the North Pyramid and yearns to experience the natural world.
Esteban: Saskia’s egocentric older brother, an advertising executive who is always talking on his watchphone.
Dakota: Saskia’s younger brother, who constantly annoys her and is obsessed with video games.
Ignacio: Saskia’s father, who divorced their mother a few years ago and works for the government.
Rose: Saskia’s mother, who lives with Saskia and Dakota in the North Pyramid.
Abbie: A sixteen-year-old girl who struggles to survive in the wilderness with her brothers.
Tsultrum: Abbie’s overprotective older brother who is wary of their journey from the mountains to the lowlands.
Dober: Abbie’s rambunctious younger brother who has red dreadlocks and befriends a dog he names Shadow.
Kade: Esteban’s whimsical friend who meets Esteban and Saskia at a bar and encourages her to try to go outside the pyramids.
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