A few years ago, author Judith Schalansky published a widely praised book called The Atlas of Remote Islands. She pairs full-color cartographic drawings with compelling narratives about lore and legend and science and history, the aim being to celebrate the cartographic unknown.
That’s one way of exploring uninhabited or sparsely populated blips of land amid endless seas. Another way is to read some classic fiction.
As setting goes, every island is brimming with possibilities that affect plot, character, mood. It is isolation and introspection, seclusion with no place to hide, a place that seems both manageable and unfathomably mysterious. It is new life or a slow death, terror or revelation. Or sometimes all at once—just re-read Lord of the Flies, which was published 60 years ago this month.
So it is no wonder that many renowned authors have taken their readers to remote islands for some of their most famous stories—authors like Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, H.G. Wells, Virginia Wolff, Agatha Christie, and Michael Crichton. And they’ve stranded iconic characters like Long John Silver and Robinson Crusoe, Piggy and Prospero. Island protagonists (and antagonists) have been shipwreck survivors, prison escapees, accidental adoptees, treasure hunters, exiled rulers, explorers, mad scientists, and murder suspects.
So let’s take a trip to some uncharted isles. No Hawaii here (sorry, James Michener). No United Kingdom (sorry, Bill Bryson). Jamaica is by no means overlooked and secluded, so we’ll steer wide of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. No Long Island (sayonara, Gatsby).For that matter, no island of Manhattan.
No, here we celebrate remote (usually) spits of land—the kind that become lead characters in the story. Agatha Christies A Caribbean Vacation doesn’t count. But Indian Island from And Then There Were None? You bet. Any good island explorer seeks out the unusual—or at least the legendary. So break open a coconut and have a seat for this installment of the Why Not 100—34 unforgettable island settings:
1. The Island of Despair
Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is the shipwrecked tale that inspired all others. There’s even a genre of “desert island story” known as a Robinsonade. Crusoe is stranded with two cats and a dog on what he calls the Island of Despair (probably based on the Caribbean island of Tobago). He excavates a cave, builds a canoe, hunts, grows crops, makes pottery, fends of mutineers and cannibals, and rescues a fellow whom he calls Friday. The first edition, published in 1719, actually credited the title character as the author, and many readers believed it was a travelogue.
2. Treasure Island
Robert Louis Stevenson left us with iconic characters—Long John Silver, Billy Bones, Ben Gunn. And an iconic scenario—an island bearing lost pirate treasure. Captain Flint calls it Skeleton Island. To protagonist Jim Hawkins (and to Stevenson for a book title), it’s Treasure Island. The duality symbolizes the risk and reward of the adventure.
In William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies, a group of boys is marooned on an uninhabited (and never named) coral island. The ordinary boys soon savagely discard ordinary standards of behavior, and a certain utopia becomes the ultimate dystopia.
Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels took the title character many places, but the most memorable locale in the novel (published in 1726) was the first—in which Gulliver is shipwrecked, washed ashore on an island country populated by a tiny race of people (the Lilliputians), each no more than six inches tall. When he later voyages to Brobdingnag, Gulliver is comparatively Lilliputian.
It’s hard to figure what this stretch of imagination is, geologically and geographically. Neverlands, according to J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (1911), are found in most children’s minds and “always more or less an island.” The real world is the “Mainland,” and as remote islands go, this may be the remotest—“near the stars of the Milky Way” reached by heading “second to the right, and straight on till morning.”
6. Prospero’s Island
Magic and manipulation, spirits and monsters, a prince and his princess, an exiled duke and his duplicitous brother—all on a remote island that offers revenge and redemption. That’s William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”
This one was published, in Latin, two centuries before even Robinson Crusoe. Thomas More’s Utopia describes an idealized island community. Violence is extinct. Religious tolerance is ubiquitous. Perfect social harmony exists. But there also hints that Utopia may be unattainable.
8. Isla Nublar
It’s a tropical island near Costa Rica. There’s a billionaire philanthropist there, and a team of genetic scientists. They’ve cloned dinosaurs and created a wildlife experience known as Jurassic Park. Michael Crichton wrote the book. Steven Spielberg made the movie. A T-Rex had an attorney for lunch.
9. Isla Sorna
Arthur Conan Doyle was the first to write The Lost World, setting his novel about dinosaurs on a plateau in the Amazon rainforest. More than 80 years later, Michael Crichton’s The Lost World was a sequel to Jurassic Park. When two groups learn of Isla Sorna, the isolated Central American location of the “production facility” where the park’s dinosaurs were hatched and grown, chaos ensues.
10. Indian Island
Agatha Christie at her best. Ten people, each with a secret, are invited to a lonely mansion on Indian Island. They are the only people there, yet they are all picked off, one by one. Hence the book’s title: And Then There Were None. The howdunit is as riveting as the whodunit.
11. San Nicolas Island
In Island of the Blue Dolphins, a 1960 Newberry Medal-winning children’s novel that remains a student-assigned staple in the 21st century, author Scott O’Dell tells the true story of Juana Maria—the “Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island.” The girl was left behind, stranded for 18 years on the most remote of California’s Channel Islands.
12. Monte Cristo
The Count of Monte Cristo, the 1844 adventure novel by Alexandre Dumas (author of The Three Musketeers) tells of Edmond Dantes. He is wrongfully imprisoned, escapes to an island, makes his way to another island (Monte Cristo), recovers a lost treasure, then dedicates himself to vengeance.
13. The Isle of Skye
Virginia Wolff’s 1927 novel To the Lighthouse tells the story of one family, the Ramsays, living in a summer house on the Isle of Skye off the coast of Scotland. In 1998, the Modern Library chose it as No. 15 among the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
14. The Island of Dr. Moreau
The Island of Dr. Moreau is H.G. Wells’s most disturbing novel. A distinguished London physiologist flees a scandal by escaping to a remote island in the South Seas, where he likes to create Beast Folks—you know, human-animal hybrids like dog-men and leopard-men. Island life can be isolating…
In The Magus by John Fowles, teacher Nicholas Urfe relocates to a school on the Greek island of Phraxos, where he encounters a wealthy recluse who embroils him in dark psychological games. It was named one of Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels.
16. New Switzerland
In The Swiss Family Robinson (published in 1812), a father, mother and four sons are en route to Australia when their ship is abandoned by the crew after running aground on a reef in the East Indies. They family locates an uninhabited but idyllic tropical island where theirs is largely a happy tale of self-reliance. They even build a treehouse with a large library.
17. Hedeby Island
In Stieg Larson’s bestselling The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, this fictional island, supposedly along the coast of Sweden and mostly owned by Henrik Vanger, is a place shrouded in mystery and hiding terrible secrets.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society is historical fiction (by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows) about a newspaper columnist’s growing relationship with the eccentrics on a real island in the English Channel, off the cost of Normandy.
19. Lincoln Island
The residents of this uncharted isle named it after President Lincoln. In Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, five northern prisoners (and a dog) escape a Confederate jail by hijacking a balloon, eventually crash landing on the unknown, volcanic island. They survive, quite well in fact—thanks in part to a mysterious force that seems to help them when they most need it. It turns out that the island is the home port of the Nautilus, Captain Nemo’s famed submarine from a familiar Jules Verne tale.
20. Prince Edward Island
This one nearly didn’t make this list as it is by no means an uncharted isle, but it’s the setting for a classic—Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Anne is orphan Anne Shirley. Green Gables is a farm on the island. The combination, published in 1908, has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide.
That’s the natives’ name for the fictional island near Antarctica teeming with creatures extinct in the rest of the world. In The Land That Time Forgot, a fantasy novel by Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs, lost submariners comes upon an island ringed by cliffs, and emerges from a subterranean passage to encounter everything from Neanderthals to dinosaurs.
22. Coral Island
In 1857, Scottish author R.M. Ballantyne wrote The Coral Island, which was one of the first juvenile fiction tales to feature all juveniles. Three European boys are shipwrecked and marooned on a South Pacific Island. The message is essentially that they “civilize” the Polynesian natives through Christianity, but William Golding purposely inverted the morality when he wrote Lord of the Flies.
23. The Beach
Described as a “Lord of the Flies for Generation X,” Alex Garland’s 1996 novel The Beach tells of a young backpacker who receives word of (and a map to) what is supposed to be an idyllic beach untouched by tourism. He and some friend finally reach it (after a boat, a swim, a jungle trek, and a jump down a waterfall), and find a hierarchical community that—for a while—seems idyllic. For a while…
24. Palm Tree Island
Henry de Vere Stacpoole’s novel The Blue Lagoon strands young cousins Dicky and Emmeline (played by Brooke Shields in the 1980 film) on a remote island. For a while, a portly sailor is with them until he drinks himself to death. Then they must navigate puberty, love, sex, and childbirth all on their own. The island is essentially a metaphor for the loss of adult guidance.
25. The Nation
In Nation, a young adult novel by Terry Pratchett (of Discworld fame), Mau is the only survivor after a tsunami destroys his village—located on an island in the fictitious Great Southern Pelagic Ocean. Daphne is the sole survivor of a shipwreck. In this alternate history of the 1860s (a Russian flu pandemic has killed the king of England and the next 138 heirs to the throne), the two protagonists overcome cultural and language barriers, take in other tsunami survivors from neighboring islands, and defend a place they call “the Nation.”
26. Shutter Island
Denise Lehane’s thriller of the same name, this barren island is the home of Ashecliffe Hospital of the Criminally Insane. There’s a hurricane bearing down and a dangerous patient on the loose.
27. Janus Rock
M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans is set in 1926. Lighthouse keeper Tom Sherbourne and his wife Isabel are the only inhabitants of a remote island near Western Australia. Then one morning, a boat washes ashore carrying a dead man and a crying infant. The choice to keep little Lucy devastates one of them.
28. Generations Island
In actuality, the island in The Summer Book is unnamed, but sometimes an isolated island is connection. Written by Finnish author Tove Jansson in 1972, the book consists of 22 vignettes about an elderly artist and her six-year-old granddaughter Sophia. They spend a summer together on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland, exploring it and adoring it, which helps them explore love, life, death, and survival in the natural world.
29. Isle of Gloom
The Island of Adventure is part of Enid Blyton’s mid-20th century Adventure series (The Castle of Adventure, The Valley of Adventure, The Circus of Adventure…). This one is about four kids on an idyllic vacation—until they realize that something sinister is taking place on the mysterious Isle of Gloom.
The Island by Victoria Hislop is set in the small Greek seaside village of Plaka—and, just off the coast, the tiny island of Spinalonga, where a leper colony once was located. The village is where the Petrakis family lives. The island has haunted four generations of Petraskis women.
31. Pig Island
Here’s a tip—a lesson learned from Pig Island, a thriller by Mo Hayder: If you’re a journalist aiming to debunk supernatural hoaxes and you visit a secretive community on a remote Scottish island, and you have to infiltrate the territory of the group’s isolated founder by crossing electrical fencing, toxin-filled oil drums, and pig skulls… turn around and go home.
32. Island of the Aunts
In Eva Ibbotson’s children’s novel, Island of the Aunts, three peculiar women are caretakers of a secret island that includes a menagerie of fantastical creatures (including wingless dragons and unfortunate oil-slicked mermaids). Upon realizing that they’re aging, the women select (okay, kidnap) three children to be their replacements.
33. Jexium Island
In this 1957 novel of the same name, set on a North Atlantic island, a ring of kidnappers capture children between the age of 9 and 17 to hunt for the island’s deposits of Jexium (a fictitious atomic ore). It’s up to a young castaway—and the French Navy—to save them.
That’s what Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan name (“as kind of a joke”) the island off the coast of New Guinea on which they crash landed in 1937. About Jane Mendelsohn’s I Was Amelia Earhart, Katherine Whittamore wrote on Salon.com: “Earhart and Noonan move from hope of rescue to bickering, hatred, and madness; to love and then to fear of rescue, against a backdrop of coconut palms.”