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Everybody Wants to Go to Pitcairn
on May 1, 2001
I wonder if it's possible to learn about Pitcairn Island and not want to go there. During hectic days when I feel overwhelmed and unappreciated by the endless rat race striving that makes up much of my life, my thoughts turn to the joys and happiness of casting it all away and living on an island far away, a place like Pitcairn. Birkett took such feelings to their logical end by arranging to live on Pitcairn. This book describes her time on the island.
As travel writing goes, Birkett's text is interesting. For the community of around 40 people, life on Pitcairn is controlled by the sea and by the smallness of the island. Birkett's text offers a view of a life removed, indeed cutoff, from much of what we consider normal, natural, and expected. The Pitcairn Islanders live in a state of being self-sufficient and at the same time dependent upon the whims of passing ships. In these days when technology seems to draw many of us closer together and to make the world smaller, Pitcairn seems more isolated. There used to be many more ships passing the island in the days before airplanes were in widespread use for Pacific routes.
The book is also a study of the difficulties an outsider faces in becoming part of such a community. Birkett reports that she often found herself at a loss to understand the true ins and out of the community. On Pitcairn, as in so many other places, the community has its own code, its own flow, understandable to insiders and baffling to outsiders. In a sense, it's not different from any other community in the world. What makes it different is that Pitcairn is the stuff of legend and the focus of fantasy.
Birkett's book is the story of the unfortunate intrusion of reality in the search for Paradise. There is a long tradition of such writing, and the common theme is that "utopia" is, as the derivation of the word itself suggests, "no place." During Birkett's time, she went from being an outsider trying to understand the ins and outs of Pitcairn life to being an outsider vaguely afraid of violence from the islanders. In the end, she was anxiously waiting for the next passing ship to pick her up and take her home.
Yet, the dream of Paradise does not die, even though we know that there is no such place, even as the result of experience. In the wee hours, in unexpected moments, we all long for the place that can never be.