The cottage book club

The cottage book club meets on the deck Photo by Raina and Wilson

The cottage book club: Once a summer, the love of a good story turns a loose collection of cottagers into a tight community of readers.

It is a dazzlingly sunny late July morning at Bay of Islands, a rocky archipelago of hundreds of islands north of Manitoulin’s eastern flank. The quartzite La Cloche Mountains rise in the background, familiar to me from paintings by members of the Group of Seven. And at Jane and Reg Drolet’s island camp, boat after boat arrives with other islanders. First it’s three generations of Van Sickel women from Pittsburgh and Seattle—Barbara, daughter-in-law Erika, and granddaughter Maren (with her baby, Anderson). Then a succession of aluminum Stanley boats, as women boatpool over with their neighbours or, to save limited dock space, are dropped off. Kathryn Reeves, from a few islands over, scoots in on her PWC, as does retired educator Sheila Williams—both Canadians. On and on, until vessels are tied up all along the Drolets’ dock and barge. By the end, 22 women have arrived for their once-a-year literary discussion group, Bas Bleus, the first cottage book club I’ve ever come across.

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For the past 13 years, the Bas Bleus have met at each other’s camps to discuss a work of fiction or non-fiction. The club was founded by Marianne Schafer, a retired teacher from Indianapolis now living in Florida, and the late Ann Thoburn, a Toronto librarian who loved reading the classics. They set it up as a group that would bring together the American and Canadian women who spend their summer holidays on the 40 islands within the chain that are not Crown land. The pair envisaged a gathering of readers who enjoyed the rugged beauty of Bay of Islands but wished to overcome the isolation of their island camps. And, as one member told me, many of the working women’s lives are so busy the other nine months of the year, it’s at the cottage where they do most of their reading, so having a book club there seemed inspired.

It was Marianne who invited me to join the group for an author visit last summer because the Bas Bleus planned to discuss my book The Prison Book Club, a non-fiction account of the 18 months I spent taking part in two book clubs in men’s federal prisons. In the book I contrasted the prison book clubs with my own book discussion group in the city and observed that the inmates’ insights into the reading were often equally or more acute. I was interested to hear the Bas Bleus women’s thoughts.

The Prison Book Club by Ann Walmsley
The Prison Book Club by Ann Walmsley. Photo by Raina and Wilson

The day before the meeting, when I arrive at the camp where Marianne and her husband, Mike, spend 12 weeks each summer, it’s in a blinding rainstorm with 40 km/h winds. I’m stunned that Mike can even see to steer their Boston Whaler. We nose into a channel past an outcrop of Crown land, and a small island with a 1950s log-sided cabin framed by flower beds comes into view. Mike tells me he first came to the area as a boy, with his parents, from Indianapolis in the ’50s. They stayed at a fishing lodge, where they learned about shore lunches and caught muskellunge—two of which are mounted at Île Delapierre, the camp that he and Marianne bought 31 years later.

The Schafers’ corgi, Aiden, charges across the grass to greet us at the dock. Once out of the elements, I take in the evidence of Marianne’s devotion to literature and the arts: a photograph of the author E. B. White writing in his Maine boathouse; a bookshelf with all the Bas Bleus books from past years; displays of porcupine quill boxes, made by women of the nearby Whitefish Falls and M’Chigeeng First Nations.

Cottage bookshelf
Cottage bookshelf. Photo by Raina and Wilson

Over steaming mugs of tea, Marianne jokes that she “forced” the group to adopt the Bas Bleus (“bluestockings”) moniker, a name she had always wanted to bestow on a book club in honour of the Bluestocking Society. The society was an 18th century literary circle in England hosted by women interested in pursuing education instead of embroidery. It was credited with advancing the early days of feminism. For Marianne, the name captured her vision that the discussion be intellectual and the books serious, not light summer reads. “We were interested in getting away from talk of outhouses and boat motors,” she says. She also liked the tongue-in-cheek aspect of borrowing a name that implied privilege and wealth and applying it to a group of down-to-earth cottagers roughing it in rustic cabins more than six hours north of Toronto, where a typical island camp is around $300,000. All smarts, no pretension.

While the original Bluestockings did invite men to their salons, this island group was always interested in encouraging the voices of women. Marianne’s close friend Lindsay Richards, a long-time elementary school principal and veteran Bas Bleu, joins us for dinner and explains over coffee that, like her, most of the women say there is something they prize about the company of independent women of all ages engaging in intellectual discussions about literature in the stunning beauty of Bay of Islands. “I think we have this connection as women,” she says. The Bas Bleus often refer to themselves proudly as “bay women,” she says, a term denoting their skill at navigating boats through the many unmarked shoals and their self-sufficiency during long spells operating a camp on their own.

Indeed, a number of the women summer solo on their islands. One is Lindsay’s sister-in-law Ann Richards, a former nurse now based in Collingwood who spends her summers at her historic camp on Birch Island. Another is Bobette Jones, a 74-year-old retired Seattle lawyer who pilots her 17-foot Whaler around the bay and bounds nimbly over the undulating mounds of quartzite. She spends three months each year living on an off-grid island at the far western reach of Bay of Islands, where the winds are stronger and the water choppier. Her two-room cabin sits exposed on the rock, with a vintage hand pump at the kitchen sink providing water for washing, and an outhouse her only bathroom. Three punctured metal doorknobs mounted on the wall serve as reminders of a bear visit.

Before turning in for the night, Marianne shows me her immaculately kept journal of Bas Bleus meetings. She corrects me when I refer to it as a book club, saying that she sees the word “club” as elitist. She emphasizes that the discussions are open to all women on the bay. The newsletter for the Bay of Islands Community Association advertises the gathering each year on the last Thursday of July. I’ve never been in a book club with such a democratic membership model. The tradition is so prized by the members that many schedule their holidays around attending the meeting.

A boat arrives at the cottage.
A boat arrives at the cottage. Photo by Raina and Wilson

While I join Jane Drolet to watch members step out of their boats on book discussion day, she talks excitedly about this being her first time to host. She’s a local from Manitoulin, which makes it easy for her family to maximize their time at camp, a rustic beauty dating from the 1920s and perched above the water on a rock face.

Like most book groups, first stop for the Bas Bleus after making their way up the walkway is the kitchen—for coffee and baked goods. The kale and cheese frittatas made by Jane’s son Thomas disappear quickly, along with Jane’s sour cream apple cake. The women also sample cinnamon cupcakes baked by Connecticut-based Layla Montgomery, age 12, the youngest reader in attendance, accompanying her mother and her grandmother, who’s from Ohio. Several members grumble with good humour that Jane has raised the bar for future hostesses by serving mimosas. Given the previous day’s storm, several women mention the sunshine, which made their boat trips a breeze. Despite the women’s self-reliance, rough weather and boat problems can make getting to the meeting unpredictable. Rather like my own soggy arrival at Bay of Islands, high winds and whitecaps on the day of the 2015 meeting meant that almost everyone came soaked, their books wet. “Upon arrival, some of us had to remove our clothes, wrap ourselves in towels, use the hostess’s hair dryer, drape our wet clothes over the railing, and proceed with a serious discussion,” recalls Janet Withrow, an American member. “We refer to it as the book club where we left our clothes at the door.”

Coffee cups in hand, the women make their way to Jane’s back deck to settle into deck chairs for the outdoor meeting. Because open membership means different women may attend each summer, the Bas Bleus begin each gathering by introducing themselves. Sitting in a large circle, the women each describe their deep histories in Bay of Islands. Ann Richards, one of the two facilitators that day, starts off. “My claim to fame is this is my 70th summer here,” she says. Her camp famously was used by President Roosevelt’s Secret Service during a fishing trip to the area in 1943. Richards says she’s always amazed to imagine FDR in her cabin. Her mother documented the trip—and how his mail plane crashed offshore—in a book on the area.

Ann Walmsley
Ann Walmsley. Photo by Raina and Wilson

Janet Withrow, from Indianapolis, describes coming to Bay of Islands on her honeymoon 53 years earlier and vowing that she would never return… “until we had our own place.” Everyone laughs. This year’s first-timers, Kim Redston from Vancouver and Tara Griggs, who runs her own home care business in Waterloo, tell their stories, while two other women regretfully announce that their camps are for sale.

In the Bas Bleus’ first three years, the women chose books set on islands or in northern landscapes as a way of deepening their appreciation for the bay. But for the past decade, the American members’ curiosity about Canadian literature has led to reading almost exclusively Canadian titles, beginning with Alice Munro’s Runaway in 2008 and including Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, and two books by the late Ojibwa author Richard Wagamese. The exception was a novel set in Canada by the Scottish author Stef Penney. “The Americans are very interested in knowing more about things Canadian,” says Ann Atkey, a member who has been coming to the area for 22 years. “And going in both directions, we break down stereotypes.”

Most members point to the discussion on Wagamese’s heartbreaking Indian Horse as their most memorable and relevant, particularly because of the many First Nations people they have come to know in the area. Sheila Williams recalls that, though the Americans were less familiar with Canada’s residential schools, which feature in the book, they “all felt the atrocity in a similar way.”

Introductions done, the discussion of The Prison Book Club gets under way with the Bas Bleus marvelling at the degree of empathy that the men developed through reading literature. “I thought the men’s responses were wonderful,” says Marianne. “They were just as insightful as any of the members of our book club.”

But the Bas Bleus, who value a frank exchange of views, aren’t shy to be candid with the author present. One member disagrees with some of the other women on empathy. “I’m going to be a bit more cynical about that one,” she says. Referring to a study, she says, “about 25 per cent of the prison population, or even higher in maximum security, are psychopaths. They’re very good at mimicking empathy. But there is a subset who have no empathy, and a book club isn’t going to do it, and those are the ones at the highest risk of recidivism, of course.”

As the discussion continues, the two facilitators ask probing literary questions and keep us on topic, much like in the prison book clubs. “We always talk about the book in a meaningful and purposeful manner,” Lindsay Richards tells me later, adding that her book club at home doesn’t always stay on track. At one past Bas Bleus meeting, the women broke into small groups to drill into one aspect of the book, then shared their ideas with the rest. It reminds me of how the inmates sometimes met in advance of book club to talk about the reading.

Since the group has often selected books that explore the natural world, I ask them how they reacted to my descriptions of escaping into nature between prison visits and my regrets that the inmates had no access to nature and its humanizing force. “When you went to Amherst Island—the part about the snake—I thought that was cool, because one day I was in my kitchen here, sewing away, and a big snake went across the room,” says Jane Drolet. “We have our snakes at our doorways here and our turtles and our birds.”

“I loved the nature,” says Ann Atkey, “but I thought there could be less of it, because I was most interested in what was going on in the prison.”

Someone reading on the rocks at the cottage.
Photo by Raina and Wilson

The discussion winds down, and the Bas Bleus vote to read The Handmaid’s Tale next. Ann Atkey tells me that they credit Marianne, with her love of books and her organizational skills, as the anchor who makes it work. She’s their institutional memory and their compass. She ensures that there are two facilitators for every discussion, to encourage the pair to bond over author research; that the hostess is someone different, so that the burden of the meeting isn’t too stressful; and that the vote on the next book happens before the meeting ends. She takes photos of every gathering and records who is present for the group’s journal, collecting email addresses in order to knit together the community.

“Every gathering brings an insight into each other,” says Janet Withrow. It’s this sharing that has forged the strong bonds between these women from two countries. Ann Richards says, “We’ve formed a sisterhood almost.” While it would be going too far to say that the inmates in the prison book club formed similar bonds, the men did say that sharing literature was starting to bridge racial, religious, and other divides in the prison population. “That was one of our biggest epiphanies from your book,” says Marianne. “The power of reading.”

A song sparrow trills in a tree nearby, and Marianne makes a comment about the inmates that’s expressive of the open-heartedness of this open-air book group. “What mattered to me is what the men had to say about the books,” she says. “They could be right here in this group with us. They would fit fine.”

Ann Walmsley has been writing for Cottage Life for more than 25 years. She has been a member of seven book clubs. This story originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Cottage Life magazine as “Bound by Books.”

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