Abel’s Island captures author William Steig’s whimsical storytelling style, along with his signature illustrations, as it recounts the tale of a mouse named Abel who is marooned on a deserted island. Abel, separated from his wife and home, lives as a castaway on the island for almost a year, and the experience pushes the cultivated mouse to access his primal, animalistic nature to survive. In the process, Abel learns to trust his intuition and learns he is capable of not only surviving but thriving outside the civilized world. The novella won the prestigious Newbery Honor Award, and director Michael Sporn adapted the story into a 30-minute animated film in 1988 with actor Tim Curry as the voice of Abel. The film won a short film Emmy Award in 1989. Steig is also the author of the popular children’s novel Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, which won a Caldecott Medal, and Shrek!, which was later adapted into an animated film. Steig began his career as a cartoonist for The New Yorker and didn’t begin writing books until age 61.
The source material comes from the Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1976 edition.
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Young mouse Abelard and his new wife, Amanda, are picnicking in nature to celebrate their first wedding anniversary when a sudden storm forces them to take cover with other creatures in a nearby cave. When the wind catches Amanda’s scarf, Abel gallantly lunges for the scarf and chases it out into the storm. Abel becomes disoriented as the wind and rain buffet his tiny body, and he tumbles down a ravine into the torrent of a rain-swollen river. Clutching a passing block of wood as a raft, Abel fights for his life before the water deposits him and his life raft into the branches of a birch tree. There, he sleeps until morning when the clearing skies reveal that he is trapped on a small island in the middle of the river. Abel worries for Amanda’s safety but is certain someone has launched a search party that will rescue him shortly. In the meantime, Abel, who isn’t used to physical labor, works to devise a plan to escape from the island. After failing to create a raft, catamaran, bridge, and catapult, Abel, exhausted, resigns himself to making the island his home until he is rescued.
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Abel creates a shelter from a fallen tree and uses what few belongings he has on him, including a knife, to create some semblance of comfort amid the wildness of the island. While he fights to survive, Abel thinks constantly of his home, especially Amanda, and wears her scarf to feel close to her in their separation. Abel’s longing for home and companionship becomes so strong that he sculpts statues of Amanda and his other family members to keep him company, and he begins to “talk” to Amanda, hoping that somehow she can telepathically hear his messages. Though he must constantly work to adapt to the challenges of living on a deserted island, Abel never loses his desire to return home. He lights signal fires and sends letters in clay bowls down the river to maintain his hope that someone will come to his rescue.
Months pass, and summer changes to fall and winter. Abel fortifies his shelter against the falling temperatures and stockpiles food for the coming winter. He discovers a pocket watch and a novel, treasures from the civilized world that bring him great comfort. He winds the watch and enjoys its methodical ticking, and each day he reads one chapter of the novel and temporarily forgets his plight. Abel still “talks” to Amanda but also begins talking to himself as his mental state adapts to the prolonged isolation. When an owl begins hunting Abel, the new threat forces him to learn a new level of survival as he evades the owl’s natural inclination for predation. Abel fashions a spear from his knife and casts spells of destruction on the owl’s discarded feathers.
Winter descends on the island, and the deep snow and cold wind traps Abel inside his log shelter. He becomes sick and depressed and misses the comforts of home and his wife more than ever. Gradually, the days lengthen into early spring, and as the snow and ice melt, Abel emerges outside into the warmth of the sun. He feasts on the newly sprouted shoots and enjoys seeing the flowers bloom, but the snow melt has turned the river into a raging torrent that prevents him from crossing. One day, as Abel basks in the sun, intoxicated on homemade wine, a frog washes down the waterfall and onto the island. The frog introduces himself as Gower Glackens and explains that he was caught in the flood as he emerged from his hibernation in the mud. Overwhelmed at seeing another creature for the first time in almost a year, Abel welcomes Gower onto the island and shows him his shelter. Like Abel, Gower misses his family and is anxious to return home, but he remains with Abel for almost a month as he waits for the water to be safe to swim. During their time together, Abel becomes fond of Gower, despite his short memory and strange amphibious behavior. Abel creates a sculpture of Gower and adds it to his collection.
As Gower leaves, he promises to send help for Abel, but since he is so forgetful, Abel doubts it will happen. Saddened by the absence of his friend, Abel returns to his shelter in tears. A drought sets in as summer progresses, and water levels drop as low as they’ve been since he arrived. Abel wonders if this is his chance to escape. Bidding farewell to the island that was his home for a year, Abel enters the water and swims with all his might. After stopping to rest on a rock, he fights the current and pushes to the other side. He turns to see the island once more before walking toward home. Abel narrowly escapes being eaten by a cat but outsmarts the feline by climbing a tree and causing the cat to fall.
When he arrives in Mossville, he hides in the shadows so the townsfolk won’t see his disheveled clothing. Abel spots Amanda sitting on a park bench and must restrain himself from running and embracing his bride. He sneaks home and uses his keys to enter his house; he’s careful to leave Amanda’s scarf on the entry table as a sign. After cleaning himself and donning his best clothes, Abel retires on the couch. Amanda returns home, finds the scarf, and runs to Abel. Astonished at his miraculous return, she covers him with kisses.