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Hemingway's Islands in the Stream: Background information when reading The Birdcatcher

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The Birdcatcher

by Gayl Jones

The Birdcatcher by Gayl Jones X
The Birdcatcher by Gayl Jones
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2022, 216 pages

    Paperback:
    Sep 2023, 216 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book

Hemingway's Islands in the Stream

This article relates to The Birdcatcher

Print Review

Ernest Hemingway's Islands in the Stream, Scribner Classics edition with red cover The Birdcatcher by Pulitzer finalist Gayl Jones features numerous allusions to literary figures and artists. The narrator, Amanda, is a writer, and her friend Catherine, who has repeatedly tried to murder her husband, is a sculptor. While contemplating Catherine's relationship with her husband, Ernest, Amanda references the work of an author who shares his first name:

"I started thinking of something else I read once in a book by Hemingway, his island book. That painting was practiced by better people than writing. She was a sculptor though. Same difference. She'd tried to kill him, and yet somehow the idea of Catherine as the 'better person' always ran through my head. Because of that book? Well, who are you in the next guy's imagination?"

Islands in the Stream was edited and published posthumously in 1970 by the author's widow, Mary Hemingway — one of 332 works he left behind (including not just novels but shorter works, fragments and notes) when he died by suicide in 1961. It focuses on a character named Thomas Hudson, a painter, and is divided into three parts, set during different periods of his life, called "Bimini," "Cuba" and "At Sea." When he wrote it in the early 1950s, Hemingway initially intended for it to be a series of books. He began writing a fourth part for the series, which ended up stealing the author's focus from the exploits of Thomas Hudson and became something else entirely — his novella The Old Man and the Sea (1952).

Islands in the Stream features many of Hemingway's trademark themes — masculinity, sorrow, loss and war. In the first part, Hudson's children visit him on the island of Bimini in the Bahamas. The majority of the plot revolves around one of his sons attempting to catch a swordfish. Though the boy is victorious, the section ends in tragedy, leaving Hudson grieving. In the second part, Hudson arrives in Cuba after a tour as a Marine, having just learned that one of his other sons, a fighter pilot, has been killed in the line of duty. Hudson drowns his sorrows in a bar. Finally, in the third part, Hudson is on a yacht with six other men searching for the surviving crew of a German submarine that was destroyed in the water. This section draws from Hemingway's real-life experiences patrolling the Florida Straits in 1942 on his own yacht looking for German U-boats.

The New York Times review of Islands in the Stream was positive, borderline effusive, with the reviewer remarking that "it is a complete, well-rounded novel, a contender with his very best." Ploughshares wrote, "At its best Hemingway's prose has a fresh, clean cold water quality. He gets the job done with such economy of means one feels directly a sharply viewed sense of the world," while also noting that, "Those who are put off by the 'He-Man Papa-Hem' of legend will probably find Thomas Hudson...insufferable." Never one to pull punches, Kirkus Reviews declared the posthumous novel "stale and worn" and "a sad bequest indeed."

Filed under Books and Authors

Article by Lisa Butts

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Birdcatcher. It originally ran in October 2022 and has been updated for the September 2023 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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