Song of Orchid Island
by Barry Martinson
Gabriel Press, Taipei, 2006
purchase from Amazon.com
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I first learnt of this book when I heard its author, Father Barry Martinson, interviewed on What's up in Taiwan. It made me very curious to learn more both about Orchid Island (蘭嶼 or Lan Yu) and Father Barry. Father Barry is a Jesuit priest who has been living in Taiwan for about 35 years. As a young man he spent a year living on Orchid Island and was so moved by the experience that he sought to record it as a book.
The history of the book and getting it published is interesting. The original manuscript was almost lost before being recovered from a publisher in the USA. It was only because of the interest of the famous Taiwanese writer San Mao (三毛), who translated the book into Chinese, that it was ever published at all.
The English edition was published last year. Father Barry hopes that it can help Taiwanese people to learn English. On the Taubooks website he writes,
Before, I never read much in Chinese, because I could never find anything I liked. Then, one day, about 25 years ago, San Mao mailed me her first book called, Sahara Story.
I read the book from cover to cover. It was easy to read, because I liked what she wrote. Then I realized that if you find a book you like, you really would read it, even if it were in another language.
This is reflected in the simplicity of the language in the book. And I think this reflects the simplicity of life on Orchid Island. The author doesn't try to paint a picture of the island as a utopia. Hunger and illness were serious problems on the island. At the same time the richness of the culture and sense of community combined to make it a very special place.
I also really liked Father Barry's attitude to his work. He simply wanted to help the people and had great respect for their culture and lifestyle. This is a wonderful book that creates a great portrait of life on Orchid Island.