The major appeal of survivor tales is that readers get to put themselves in the survivors' decaying boots and imagine how they would handle day after day of deprivation and stress. That's hard to do with Joan Druett's Island Of The Lost: Shipwrecked At The Edge Of The World, because it's set in a time and place where resources were almost unimaginably scarce. In 1864, the schooner Grafton, carrying seal hunters and sailors of mixed nationalities, ran into the rocky shoals of Auckland Island, nearly 300 miles south of New Zealand. Captain Thomas Musgrave and his four-member crew survived the wreck, and spent nearly two years as castaways, living off roots and sea-lion meat, and carving out a little mini-civilization with a well-built common house, hand-crafted board and card games, and nightly lessons on science and world languages.
All of which would be a remarkable story in and of itself. But unbeknownst to the Grafton survivors, a few months after they arrived, a much bigger ship, the Invercauld, wrecked on an Auckland cliff face 20 miles up the coast. The two landing parties never met, in part because the Invercauld crew immediately turned on each other, refusing to cooperate on any camp-building or hunting. Even though the Invercaulders found their way to the ruins of a failed colony, with the basic framework for shelter, the survivors wasted away, turned to cannibalism, and buried five times as many people as were eventually rescued.
Druett, a veteran of maritime-history books and mystery novels, is more interested in laying out the basics of what happened to these crews—based on journals and memoirs—than she is in writing prose poems about courage and despair. Nevertheless, Island Of The Lost is a gripping tale, and a meditation on luck, fate, and the importance of companionship. In the camp that establishes a limited democracy and bonds together over a common purpose, the men hang on, even coming up with ingenious solutions for forging tools and maintaining a reasonably balanced diet. In the other camp, a failure of leadership leads to chaos. No matter how resourceful a castaway may be—and these two crews had some wizards—without co-operation, survival proves nearly impossible.