I’m writing this from Nevis, escaping winter’s grip on New England into the embrace of this tropical land. Since I first visited this tiny, difficult to reach island in 1996, so much has changed, though getting here hasn’t gotten any easier. Hurricanes have flattened and battered so many traditional structures, new roads have straightened hairpin curves, villas built of concrete and painted party colors have appeared far up the mountain where once sugar plantation owners enjoyed the better air. A constant is the majesty of Nevis Peak, usually wearing a halo of clouds, and the rumpled beauty of the slopes below. The Spanish, upon sighting the Peak from their ships, mistook the clouds for snow and named the island Nuestra Señora de las Nieves (Our Lady of the Snows), later abbreviated to Nevis. Because the mountainside is so steep, even in the sugar era when Nevis was dubbed “Queen of the Caribbees” for the bumper cane crops slaves extracted from its fertile soil, the upper reaches of the slopes were never cultivated. Virgin cloud forest and native fauna continue to thrive.
Nevis Peak this week on a rare "cloudless" day.
One pronounces the name of this island “nē’-vis.” In Scotland, home of the mountain known as Ben Nevis, it’s pronounced “neh’-vis.” My protagonist, Eleanor “Els” Gordon, a Scot of mercurial temperament, scales both mountains—rocky, bald Ben Nevis at age 13 with her beloved father who turns out not to be what she believed, and verdant Nevis Peak at 33. Both climbs are tests of her grit. Most of Els’s life choices are in some way tests of her grit. Fortunately, she has plenty of it. After she flees Scotland for Nevis, her new life is wedged between Nevis Peak and the sea. The mountain has her back; glistening before her is The Narrows, which separates Nevis from its sister island St. Kitts. The rocky soil roots her, enabling her to bloom like her riotous tropical garden and take big risks. The sea pulls her, and eventually demands more of her than she ever expected.