Artist: Veronica Weir
Writer: Veronica Weir
“Ever wondered how you’d cope as a castaway?”
So began the blurb to introduce us to the story of Shona Owen, a Manchester girl who has thought little beyond discos and the pleasures in life. Then an accident at sea turns her into a castaway and forces her to learn a lot of things very fast in the name of survival.
This was Jinty’s second and last foray into the castaway theme. Her only other castaway serial – “Desert Island Daisy” way back in her first weeks – was short-lived and played for laughs. But this serial is definitely not meant to be funny. It is a serious, realistic exploration of survival on a deserted island, with menaces ranging from food shortages to an invisible threat.
It all begins when Shona and her dog Scuffer are tagging along on her parents’ scientific vessel on an expedition off the Scottish coast. A storm blows up, threatening to capsize the boat, and Dad sends out an SOS. He and Mum put Shona and Scuffer in a life raft, but a jagged rock cuts the line and they drift off into the stormy ocean. The parents are rescued in the nick of time. But the search for Shona and Scuffer yields only the empty life raft, and it is presumed that they both perished. The parents are grief-stricken, of course.
What they do not realise is that the life raft dumped Shona, Scuffer and supplies on a deserted island before being washed into the sea, where the search teams find it and draw the inevitable but wrong conclusion. Shona herself hears it on the radio, which was washed up with her. She starts calling herself the girl the world forgot because in the eyes of the world she no longer exists. Even worse, the radio does not inform Shona the fate of her parents (seems pretty odd, that – you’d think it would mention their reaction to her apparent fate). So while the parents are mourning for the daughter they think is dead, Shona has no idea whether her parents survived or not. For the duration of this serial we see parallels between the grieving parents and how they cope with their loss, and the emotional struggles Shona has in not knowing the fate of her parents. For example on Shona’s birthday, she celebrates with what she has to hand, but with tears over her parents – while back home they organise a birthday cake for her, but they too are in tears. As Christmas approaches, Dad keeps his promise to Shona to always have a Christmas tree for her, while she makes her own tree out of driftwood and shells.
The island is deserted but shows signs of former habitation, including a talking crow which Shona names Joe. Joe never seems to learn to say anything but “hello”, but provides companionship and light relief to the grimness of the story. But the most notable is the croft. It is deserted, but fully furnished, and there is even a kitchen table laid out for two. The calendar says it was last used in 1941 and there is a sign saying “welcome back” – as if the place had been laid out for someone who never arrived. From the beginning, Shona feels there is something strange about the croft. But as it turns out, Shona has no idea just how strange.
Meanwhile, Shona settles down to learning how to manage the livestock which are running wild on the island, fishing for food, collecting materials for a raft for escape, and working out ways to signal for help. It’s all a steep learning curve for the Manchester teenager who did not think much beyond discos and parties, and Shona herself says as much. But luckily for Shona she has her dog Scuffer to help, and for companionship, of course. Shona learns fast, and is constantly thinking about how much survival is changing her from the hedonistic girl she was before into a more serious and mature person.
The threats to survival are never far away, and they intensify as winter sets in. Colder weather, depleting food supplies, and fish stocks moving elsewhere mean that hunger, imminent illness, and possibly even death are setting in. But the real threat comes from the aforementioned invisible enemy. From the beginning, strange things start happening, such as the stock becoming unnerved for unexplained reasons and Shona having weird dreams of somebody wanting her out. The threat of the invisible enemy close in like a menacing coil as the signs grow that there is someone else on the island who hates Shona’s presence and does not seem to like the way she keeps changing things around at the croft. It gets worse when Shona is almost killed by a rolling boulder. It looks like someone was out for murder when Shona later finds a message on the window: “Leave!” But Shona cannot find anyone else on the island, which makes her all the more frightened. It climaxes on Christmas Eve when Shona sees a woman’s face at the window. The woman leads Shona to the shore, where she sees…Vikings burning a Viking longboat?
Not to worry, it’s just the local people honouring an annual celebration on Christmas Eve. But they get more than they bargain for when they turn into Shona’s rescuers. They explain to Shona that the previous owner of the croft, Alice Drunnon, left strict instructions on her deathbed that the croft be left undisturbed as a tribute to her late husband, who had disappeared on a fishing trip. But Shona unknowingly disturbed it, so she has been up against the angry ghost of Alice Drunnon. Shona respectfully leaves the croft how she found it before she, Scuffer and Joe go to meet their rescue ship.
There is a heart-warming tie-in with the upcoming Christmas issue as Shona is reunited with her parents in time for Christmas Day. She receives the presents her mother had arranged for her, but never thought she would give in person. At the same time, two fishermen out enjoying their Christmas presents find Shona’s SOS note in a bottle. They dismiss it as a joke, ironically saying there are no people stranded on desert islands in this day and age.
The story bears some similarities to “Seulah the Seal”. They were both illustrated by Veronica Weir, whose strong but not harsh contour lines and use of cross hatching and inking work brilliantly for the rugged environment, animals and wildlife, and misty surroundings which blend in well with the eerie elements of the story. But there are other similarities between the two stories. First is the use of Scottish settings for the rugged, remote, wildlife environments in both stories. Second is the struggle for survival against threats from all sides, including forces that the protagonist does not fully understand (invisible enemy for Shona and seal hunters for Seulah). Third, there is the intense use of emotion, loss and grief intermingled with the love and friendship that keeps the protagonist going. Perhaps Seulah and GTWF had the same writer. Or maybe GTWF was originally scripted for Penny, inspired by the popularity of Seulah. Neither would be surprising. But GTWF has the added element of an increasing supernatural threat, which makes it a dramatic and gripping step up from Seulah.
Update: we have now been informed by Veronica Weir’s daughter that her mother wrote the story as well as illustrating it (thank you for the information!) The credit for the writer has been revised accordingly.