In 1951 Helene Glidden published her childhood memories of life as a little girl on Patos Island where her father was keeper of a lighthouse. The Light on the Island is written as a partial requirement for a class she was taking, and consequently it is concentrated on meeting all of the requirements of a great book: comedy, tragedy, pathos, and humor. She is an excellent storyteller who captures the imaginations of children and adults alike. The stories are all feasible, and entirely believable. Her book is sold below under the “More” tab, and in “Items for sale.” It is a must read! But writers have speculated on which parts are true and which are not ever since historians first read the book. So, this discussion is concerned entirely with what was not true.
To begin with, there were not 13 children in her family. Laurel died in infancy. He was the son of her older sister Mary and Alexander Clark, Helene’s brother-in-law. In her book she calls Clark “Uncle Al,” and pretends he had no children. Noel was also their son, and Anita was the daughter of Mary in her second marriage with Billy Coutts. She called them siblings in the book in order to get everyone’s name in the story.
There were no children digging graves and catching smallpox, and there are no Durgan children’s graves on the island. It is true that her brother Cecil Rene died of appendicitis, and he was buried in Bellingham, not on the island.
There was no battle with smugglers. That story is made up from an actual event that occurred before her birth at Turn Point fog signal station. It was drunks, not smugglers, who caused such a fray.
The story about President Theodore Roosevelt visiting Patos and staying in her bedroom was not real. Roosevelt’s travels were well publicized, and this was not one of them. Also, with only three bedrooms upstairs, one was for the boys, one for girls, and the third one was for the parents. She didn’t have her own room.
Indian Tom was a real person who did camp on Patos, probably near where the campground is today. But he never came to their house with the story about Blanchard sending for Durgan, nor did he stay in their barn. Mr. Blanchard was also real, but the stories about him are not. “God” or Spanish John was never there, nor was the opium under Blanchard’s floor.
The most tragic story, the death of “Uncle Al” was real, but the story is muddled into a strange tale. There was no Mr. Cook, and the Durgan family had already moved to Blaine when the assistant keeper, Noah Alexander Clark, drowned. So, the time frame did not fit with her story about life on the island. Obviously, she did not stop to visit Al’s grave before moving from Patos, as his body was never found and there was no grave. It was the Christmas holidays and school was not in session when the incident occurred. On the Sea Pigeon with Al that fateful night was his wife Mary and their son Noel, and Mary’s sister. We are led to believe that Estelle was the sister. But the Register of Visitors shows Edward Durgan and his wife, Estelle, along with their two daughters Clara and Estelle, signed in the day following Clark’s death. If one considers the story Glidden tells about being adrift in the lighthouse boat until the Coast Guard found her, perhaps she had a real experience of being in a drifting boat the night Clark drowned, but could not bring herself to write honestly about it all those years later.
In 1951 when the story was written, Estelle had been dead for a decade. This was just another way of using this book to honor her memory.