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We Were an Island: The Maine Life of Art and Nan Kellam Hardcover – May 11, 2010

4.2 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


If you’ve ever been in love, you’ve probably turned to your sweetheart and said something like, ‘Darling, you’re my everything.’ Perhaps you’ve daydreamed with your significant other about ‘getting away from it all’—buying a boat, moving to Sweden, moving to Galesnjak—somewhere you could live in harmony, just you two and the big blue sky. But Eve can’t unbite the apple: it’s civilization and other people and ‘I’ve got to work late again tonight, honey,’ and that’s life forevermore. And would you really move to nowhere with your someone if you could? Here’s a tale of two people who did: Art and Nan Kellam, who married in 1935 and moved to an uninhabited island off the coast of Maine in 1949, where they remained together until 1985. The story has been told before: in a wonderful 2003 Times article and in a series of photographs of the Kellam’s homestead, taken by David Graham. But neither of these was complete. In ‘We Were an Island,’ Peter P. Blanchard III uses Nan’s journals, the manuscript of the unfinished book she and Art were writing about their adventure, and their letters and family photos to weave a narrative that is at times touching, at times daunting, at time strangely relatable. Art and Nan led a relatively austere existence, chopping wood, cutting paths through the forest, growing vegetables, rowing to the mainland if they needed special supplies—but what comes through in ‘We Were an Island’ is how inconsequential all this is. The substance of the story is their relationship, which is instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever been in one. Art and Nan had nicknames for each other and made-up words only the two of them knew; they left notes on the door when they stepped out so that the other wouldn’t worry; they bickered; Art read aloud to Nan each night. Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2010/05/what-they-did-for-love.html#ixzz0nACS9yuy —The New Yorker

“This is a perfect gift for anyone who has feelings for one or more of Maine’s 3,000 islands . . .. It is a grand addition to the Maine library.’ —The Working Waterfront ‘What they hoped, Nan wrote in an early journal entry, was ‘to build a simple house and a simple life, to learn to appreciate fundamental things and carry on without the expensive diverting complications of modern civilized existence.’ —Wisconsin State Journal

‘A new book looks back at the lives of Art and Nan Kellam, who in search of simplicity and solitude, bought an island in 1948. For nearly 40 years, they were the sole inhabitants of the 550-acre Placentia, 2 miles off the northeastern coast of Maine. Before they died, they entrusted the property to the Maine chapter of the Nature Conservancy. In ‘We Were an Island: The Maine Life of Art & Nan Kellam’ (University of New England), Peter B. Blanchard weaves excerpts from their journals into a narrative of two lives closely tuned to nature.’—Boston Globe

‘Source material also came from the Kellams’ so-called Big Book, which Blanchard described as a collection of private correspondence and archived materials to which both Kellams contributed. ‘[The Big Book] was an eloquent statement of where they were and what they were doing, particularly of their first year,’ Blanchard said. ‘They had a conscious idea of getting out their story eventually, but they were never able.’ ‘We Were An Island’ includes archival photographs of the Kellams and recent photographs of Placentia Island shot by David Graham.’ —Bangor Daily News


“The story of Art and Nan Kellam and their island kingdom off the coast of Maine is a romance, but also a compelling parable of modern-day existence. We Were an Island is destined to take its place among the classics of Maine coast literature.” (Carl Little)

“Peter Blanchard has brought to life the remarkable saga of Nan and Art Kellam―a couple who lived for decades by themselves on a remote Maine island. Weaving journal entries by the Kellams with deft commentary, he has made substantial a marriage of people and place that only a very few have lived." (Baron Wormser)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 212 pages
  • Publisher: UPNE; First Edition edition (May 11, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1584658606
  • ISBN-13: 978-1584658603
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 8.2 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #301,267 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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This is a nice book, but hardly a "classic of Maine literature," as one blurb suggests. The problem is the subject couple, Art and Nan Kellam, really aren't all that interesting. They are eccentric in their love for each other and it is unusual, certainly, buying an island and living on it in Spartan conditions and with minimal interference from the outside world. Fair enough, there is merit in hearing about that. But the two points I believe most readers would be interested in are absent from the book. The first point was how the Kellams financed their life. They bought the 500+ acre island and effectively retired to it at age 38. How they managed that is never mentioned! (There is a bland note at the back mentioning a bank account from which they extracted money and received the occasional gift from Art's parents.) My guess is that many of the readers who would be drawn to this book are prone to dreams of turning their back on convention and living a self-sufficient life on the land; the biggest component of that--how to make a financial go of it--is sadly missing. They did not hunt or fish, and their garden was a mere supplement to the food they procured on the mainland. The second point is addressed directly--and with no great surprise, in hindsight--on the last page of the book. It mentions that the Kellams are not the Nearings (of subsistence farming fame) and had no ideological or philosophical reason for their turning their back on the world. They simply wanted a hermetic existence. Again, fair enough; but as such, there was no great emotional struggle, which is central to all great books. The narrative is pieced together based on sparse snippets from diaries. The vast majority of snippets are from the Kellams' first decade (of three) on the island.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
This is a beautiful book, almost like a small coffee table book; about a couple who were in love and wanted a simple life. It has numerous pictures of them, their island, house and surroundings. They purchased an island off the coast of Maine to achieve their solitude. Unlike others who do this, they did not fish, hunt or farm the land. They built a house that looked comfortable, but it lacked, electricity, running water and central heating. Even their boat was a dory, a row boat- no motor that they had to row, 4 miles to the mainland that they depended upon for their groceries.
The story is told not in first person, but is taken from Nan Kellam's journals, ledgers, books and notes that she made about their daily life. From these you can understand Nan and Art's love for each other, even if their motivations are not clear to you; as they weren't to many others. Peter Blanchard's affection for the island and the couple shine through in his descriptions and in the passages from Nan's writings. He covers their life before and their motivations. He is able to convey the growing warmth that their `neighbors' had for them and the assistance they gave to them.

There is some lacking in his explanations for the need to protect open space, as the Kellams grew to realize that they would want to do, for their island after they were gone. But perhaps if these books appeal to you enough to pick them up to read you have the inner wisdom of knowing why unspoiled land needs to be protected. It just would have been better if more of their motivations and that of the Nature Conservancy could have been conveyed to the reader.
Lovers of the outdoors, Maine, the sea, islands and of course a simpler life style would enjoy this book with its many pictures and maps.
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Format: Hardcover
If one ever aspires to "get away from it all" this would be the way to do it. Nan and Art Kellam turned their backs on conventional society and lived alone on a small island off the Maine coast. They existed on a few supplies from the mainland and their love. It is at once a romantic story and a story of survival. The lovely photographs show this couple's unusual time together. But as they aged they seemed almost oblivious - or refused to face - the dangers of such a solitary existence and were somewhat surprised when reality sadly set in.

This is a well written story woven together from the Kallam's own diaries and Mr. Blanchard's sensitive interpretations and extensive research. While several questions remain unanswered this was a fascinating read with arresting photographs illustrating a life both strange and exhilarating.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Since so much of Maine remains the way Thoreau found it, I often wonder about those who lived in these forests and on these islands before me. We Were an Island tells such a story in an amazing and interesting way. This mixture of journal entries, local history and wonderful photographs would engage any reader but especially those who enjoy biography and nature. Art and Nan were remarkable and well worth remembering for having celebrated and lived what is most vital and important in this life. The format (sort of a miniture coffee table book) adds to the pleasure of this outstanding creation. My only sadness came from learning that only deer and birds remain on the island now. Such an experiment in living should certainly have been repeated - I know I for one would volunteer to spend the rest of my days living in that fashion with my husband and sons.
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