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Giulia Torre: Romancing the River

Once upon a time there was a little girl who loved books. The summer she was 12 was the first of many summers the little girl came to Thousand Island Park. She wrote in her journal. She penned poems. She read romance novels in the bow of her father’s fishing boat.

Reading, writing and the River remained a strong part of her life as she grew into adulthood. She got an English degree and eventually a PhD in Reading/Writing/Literacy. Her writing and reading were now more academic. Her studies took her as far west as St. Louis along another great, but muddy river, but as often as she could, she returned to the crisp, crystal blue waters of the St. Lawrence.

It was during the hot, sweltering summer of 2011 that something magical happened. Now married with a family of her own, the once little girl returned to Thousand Island Park and rented a cottage for the season. There are those of you who remember that unseasonably warm summer. To keep cool, her family and friends went swimming in the River often—sometimes four or five times a day.

While swimming—sometimes at night, sometimes in glaring sunshine, sometimes on a shimmering hazy day—the once little girl came away with the kernel of a story in her head. While academic writing was a permanent part of her life now, she decided to write a novel about the River, set in that rich historic time period just before the turn of the 20th century. This novel would be about a young woman, who lived in this lush island world year around, and a good friend who only came here during the summer.

The character that emerged, as if she had been swimming with the once little girl in the silky smooth waters of the St. Lawrence all summer, was Meredith Wells, a spritely River maiden who waited for the return of dear friend, Tristan Wolfe, a Thousand Island Mr. Darcy, if you will. The novel took her two years to write and it burst onto the bookshelves last December.

Once upon a time, I was a reader and writer of fiction. But in the past decade, I’ve turned away from fiction and turned my interests toward reading and writing non-fiction. Much of my reading time is spent pouring through newspaper archives searching for tidbits of Thousand Island history. I had little interest in reading a historical romance, set in the Thousand Islands, but then I met Giulia Torre at a Thousand Island Park event last August and saw the cover of her new book, Wolfe Island. I was intrigued.

Giulia Torre knows the genre of romance novels, first as a reader and secondly as an academic. Giulia also knows the River. Her first novel, “Wolfe Island,” is a splendid blend of her two passions. What I most loved about “Wolfe Island” was her descriptions of the River: the light upon the water, the nuances of wildlife, how it feels to cross the River in the dead of night, etc. The familiar names from the Thousands Island region were also appealing, like reading about old friends: Mosquito, Wolfe, Grandview. At first I was dismayed that the names of the places didn’t fit my mental map, but then I re-read her note to the reader at the beginning of the book.

The setting of “Wolfe Island” is a fictional representation of the Thousand Islands Region of Upstate New York. Readers will find a different Wolfe Island described in these pages than the one they can find in the world. The same is true for other islands whose names are borrowed for the story. Wolfe Island was written to share the River’s beauty, but this book will not provide an accurate map to navigate its shoals.

Giulia never uses the name St. Lawrence River. When I asked her why, she explained, “I want the book to be reminiscent of the place, evocative, without being tied to geographical accuracy.”  Slowly, I let go of my nonfiction “just the facts” point of view and immersed myself in Giulia’s delicious descriptions of the River. Once I adopted a “suspension of disbelief” attitude, I opened myself to the fantasy of living in the Thousand Islands during the Gilded Age, much more vibrant than the newspaper accounts that I’m accustomed to reading.

The book is set in 1893. The heroine, Meredith, is an artist who lives year round on Mosquito Island. Her passion for the River and island life emboldens her to rise above the restrictive manners and mores of the time period. Her childhood summers were spent with Tristan Wolfe, son of a shipping tycoon who owns a “castle” on nearby Wolfe Island. (The castle on the book cover is Singer Castle, but Boldt Castle also served as inspiration for Giulia.) Tristan has been away for five years. In the interim, his father has died and Tristan is now at the helm with dreams of building a new fleet of ships and creating a new shipping route on the River. But he has returned to the islands with more than ambition, he brought his fiancé, the daughter of the man willing to finance his dreams. Returning to the River, however, means returning to the girl, who has haunted his fantasies. He’s dismayed to find that Meredith has morphed from a spritely girl into an evocative woman, so very different from the women he rubs elbows with in the drawing rooms of the elite upper-crust.

“Wolfe Island” is the first book in the Diamond on the Waters Series, a series of perhaps five books. Giulia assured me I will see Meredith and Tristan again, but they will not be the central characters. Each new book will have a new leading lady and a new romance in the forefront. But most importantly, our beloved River will run through all of them. “Swan Bay” features Chloe Swan and Simon Low. Like “Wolfe Island,” it is set in 1893, with a fictionalized representation of Thousand Island Park and the surrounding region as a backdrop.

Some of us have been away from the River for months now, but summer memories are still flowing through our psyches. I intend on getting my “River fix” by picking up a copy of Swan Bay available February 14, 2016.

By Lynn E. McElfresh, Grenell Island

Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to “TI Life,” writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. You can see Lynn’s 80+ articles here (Yes we celebrated her number 80 in July, 2015.) Lynn helps us move pianos, fix the plumbing, and often finds books and people to review… this one is a great find for the holiday season.

Posted in: Places, People
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