The classical Latin poet Catullus addresses his homeland, Sirmio, as “Paene insularum”: “almost island.” Peninsulas like Sirmio cast themselves into the sea with the hopefulness of that first strand in a spiderweb, where the weaver hurls thread and self into space in search of an anchor. Peninsulas are bridges between the security of the mainland and the independence—and arrogance—of an island.
Charles Le Guin’s novel, North Coast, is a peninsula of a story. Set in the fictional community of Bridger Bay, the protagonists—Kim, the narrator, and Steve, who becomes his closest friend and briefly his lover—reach out between individuals, cultures, and elements. Important locales begin in one realm and stretch into another: Kim’s treetop retreat; the cottage belonging to the elder Mary, situated on a forested shoreline; Steve’s hang glider, by which earth-born mortal is borne into the sky. Even the structure of the novel is peninsular: a frame story from which the older Kim reaches back to a decisive moment in his youth.
The choice between being a peninsula or an island is a choice presented to residents of small communities all the time. They can extend their community-as-extended-family ethos to other communities or can distort that principle in order to exclude “outsiders,” including anyone who lives among them but whom they wish to exclude for whatever worn-out reason of religious affiliation, skin color, sexual orientation, economic status, and so forth. North Coast is primarily the quiet story of a diffident young man awakened to the passions of an avocation and first love. But Bridger Bay speaks in its own fog — and tradition-bound voice and Kim’s story—set in an undated past non-specific enough to seem archetypal — is a story for any community troubled by tensions between the peninsular and the island mentalities, between bridges and fortresses.
The narrator, Kim, is a high-school student uncertain of his future direction. His father is the president of the local bank (which his grandfather founded), who has furnished Kim and his gentle, cultured mother with a life of unobtrusive prosperity. Until he meets Steve, who is new that year to the community and its school, Kim floats through his life with the insubstantial touch of coastal fog. Steve impresses him with his soft-spoken self-assurance, and he decides he wants to befriend the thoughtful—and physically striking—young man.
Kim overhears his English instructor enthusing to the librarian about an essay Steve had written comparing Wuthering Heights to Native American legends and is troubled by the librarian’s racist disparagement of Steve, who is of Canadian First Nations and French Canadian ancestry. When Kim shares his dismay with his parents, they strive for an uneasy balance between critiquing her attitude and defending her as a neighbor. The retiring Kim is inspired to provide Steve with the welcome he assumes more than one neighbor has refused to extend and invites Steve to his home after school. This visit is the first of many, and as their friendship deepens, Kim invites Steve into his most private of spaces: the treehouse-like aerie Kim’s grandfather had built and his father bequeathed to him as a retreat away from parental oversight.
Steve, who with his reserved nature is a kindred spirit to Kim, demonstrates his trust for his friend when he invites Kim to meet Mary, an elder of the local Pacific Northwest people (like Bridger Bay, invented for the world of the novel). Among other things, Mary had taught Steve the legend he cited in his essay. From Steve’s example, Kim learns to approach Mary with respectful attention rather than intrusive questions, and she shares her knowledge and experiences with them both. Learning from her introduces Kim to the first consuming interest of his life: Pacific Northwest cultures. Although his parents wish for him to attend a prestigious East Coast university, he decides to attend the local college, which has a Pacific Northwest studies program. He hopes that Steve, whose family is struggling financially, will receive a scholarship there so they can attend together.
Steve is ambivalent about college: although he is a good student, he knows he cannot afford to attend without either a scholarship (which he is reluctant to accept) or a full-time job. The previous summer, he had worked at a hang-gliding shop to support himself. Enthralled by the freedom of drifting through the skies, he dedicates his energies, and his earnings, to purchasing a hang glider of his own. He tries to convince Kim to try gliding, but Kim is no aviator and limits himself to watching Steve soar above him, at home and at ease in the air more than on the ground, in the different communities where he has lived.
On graduation night, Steve joins Kim in his retreat and they reveal, both to each other and themselves, their love for each other. Now Kim has even more reason to look forward to going to college together, only to have those hopes dissolve when he arrives at college and Steve does not appear. Later he learns that Steve has gone south with a co-worker from the hang-gliding shop. As an older man recalling this formative episode from his youth, Kim laments that he never sees Steve again and, although he returns to his hometown to teach at his old high school, he never meets anyone to replace the man he loved and almost immediately lost.
North Coast is a subtle work of fiction. The structure of the narrative—older Kim reflecting back on the turning point of his life—lends itself to a tone of reverie, even elegy, not passion. Some readers may prefer more intensity: struggle rather than reflection.
Kim’s friendship with Steve encourages him to grow, but does Bridger Bay grow as a community? The elder Kim does not inform us about this possibility. However, Kim’s fictional experience offers the opportunity for people in communities like his, like ours, to consider the possibility of collective growth, from islands sealed away from others (including the “others” within us) to peninsulas connecting sea to land, person to person.
 Poem XXXI, The Poems of Catullus, trans. Guy Lee, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, page 33.