In his new book, Summer at Little Lava, Charles Fergus follows Thoreau's advice and gives a clear account of himself: I had come to Little Lava for my own reasons, my own rewards: solitude, birds on the wing, the healing breath of the wind in my face, and the chance to take the days one at a time, the long bright days of the Northern summer. One adjective in that paragraph stands out healing. Few notions have been loaded with more soft-focus, warm-fuzzy blather than the curative virtues of the natural world. Still, although we may be fancy animals, we're still animals, and we are just as much a part of nature as birds and moss. We haven't outgrown that kinship; we've merely forgotten it. To return to it and embrace it means more to us than we yet understand. Charles Fergus knows this. Shortly before he and his wife and son left for the abandoned Icelandic farm they called Little Lava, his mother was murdered. Then his niece died in the crash of TWA flight 800. Although Summer at Little Lava is by no means a self-help guide, the process of grieving does color its appreciations of nature and life. Ultimately, however, the book is not melancholy but celebratory. Fergus's quick sketches of the terrain and its inhabitants, especially birds and scattered native humans, are well observed and entertaining. His dominant character is Iceland itself its landscape, people, and its tongue-twisting language (full of words such as Sn¾fellsjškull). Little Lava was without what we like to call the modern conveniences. It forced its inhabitants to face their relationship with the world around them. Early on, Fergus invokes Henry Beston's masterpiece The Outermost House, a 1920s' account of many months alone on the shore of Cape Cod. Iceland, to my mind, Fergus writes, was itself an outermost house of the Western world. And the physical house we called Little Lava on the far shore of a tidal lagoon, bound by marsh and mountain and ocean and the vast Icelandic sky seemed to me the quintessential outermost house. Such a reference invites comparison. Fergus lacks both Beston's offhand lyricism and his perfect pitch. But, thanks to Fergus's attention to detail, his enthusiasm for Iceland, and his emotional candor, Summer at Little Lava is great fun, an adventure with a charming and knowledgeable companion. Michael Sims is the author of Darwin's Orchestra (Henry Holt).

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