Lauren Wolk, Beyond the Bright Sea

Are we doing this again? We are (or I am). I’m reading the Carnegie shortlist again. There’s a Patrick Ness book on there (again), and a Marcus Sedgewick (again); is this 2016, and were the last couple of years a horrible dream?

I’ll be blogging this year’s shortlist in the order in which my shadowing group read the books–we’re doing two books every couple of weeks. First up, then, Lauren Wolk’s Beyond the Bright Sea. This is one of a couple of (very welcome) middle-grade-ish books on the shortlist this year. It’s set in 1920s America, in the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Massachusetts. One of these islands, Penikese, historically had a hospital that quarantined and treated leprosy patients (when the book opens it has been deserted for a few years), and at the beginning of the book our narrator, Crow, learns that many in her community believe her to have been born there. As a baby, Crow washed up on the shore of a neighbouring island in a leaky boat and was found and raised by Osh, an artist and himself a relative newcomer to the islands. Crow is determined to learn who she “really” is; Osh, who has raised her, is both nervous at her apparent need to discover a family other than him and concerned at what she might find if she stirs things up.

I’d expected to begin this post by saying something like “obviously it’s impossible to talk about this book without talking about Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Island at the End of Everything“, a book which was also set partly on a real historical island that was used to quarantine those with leprosy, and which was also nominated for the Carnegie this year. It turns out that beyond that similarity of setting (and the Phillippines and the north Atlantic are quite different settings) there’s very little that the books have in common in tone or plot. It does intrigue me, though, to think that at some point the judges of the medal might have been judging the two books directly against one another.

I wasn’t expecting to like this book very much–the cover matter seemed to me to emphasise a generic Girl Goes Off to Find Herself plot (alone, in a boat, sailing into the distance). Luckily, this turned out to not at all be what the book was about–Crow does “find” herself, in the sense that she ends the book with a more definite understanding of who she is, but she’s never alone, and the book’s real focus seems to be her consolidating her sense of herself as part of the small community/family that she, Osh, Miss Maggie and Mouse-the-cat have forged for themselves. Rather remarkably for the protagonist of a children’s adventure, Crow actually talks to the adults in her life, telling them when something odd or potentially dangerous has happened to her, particularly when it might put them all at risk. She sees them as potentially vulnerable people, as they are–for example, the book is pretty straightforward about Osh’s discomfort with Crow’s quest to find her biological family. Actions are seen to have consequences for the group as a whole–when a dangerous object is hidden on Miss Maggie’s property, Crow and Osh both take for granted the fact that Miss Maggie should be warned of the potential danger to her. As they should (it’s basic decency), but so many protagonists seem to barge heedlessly through the world that it’s a relief when one doesn’t.

This sense both of the vulnerability of individuals and the ethics of community living is something that recurs through the book in minor ways. While lobster fishing with Osh, Crow ponders the fact that islanders never steal from each other’s lobster pots, even though it would be easy to do, because the community requires that shared trust to function (Osh compares these small island communities to settlements in Westerns). These ethical* (but not necessarily nice) relationships extend to animals as well–Miss Maggie, who feeds whisky and milk to wild turkeys in the winter, is sorry for the dead rabbits that she turns into stew, and mourns a dead lamb; Osh, who will eventually kill and eat the lobsters he catches, but will not leave them in their traps longer than he can help, and who devises a unique strategy to eat starfish without killing them.

If the whole book had been quiet island life and ethical community living, I’d probably have liked it more (though, as other participants in the discussion noted, the prose in these sections isn’t effective enough to take full advantage of this setting). Instead, the book throws several plots at us and never really gains focus. We’re landed with the mystery (not much of one to a reasonably experienced reader, but perhaps that’s an unfair standard by which to just an MG book) of Crow’s parentage, the mystery of the pirate treasure rumoured to be buried around these parts, a thriller plot involving a violent treasure seeker who pops up at unexpected moments, and finally Crow’s discovery that she has a brother, still alive, and that there may be a chance of finding him. It’s all a bit too much, and ends up feeling uneven–the final sections in particular feel particularly rushed.

The book’s thinking about community and care almost, but doesn’t quite, extend to one of these major subplots–the one where Crow finds pirate treasure. Unable to openly claim the treasure, as the island on which it was buried is state-owned land, she nevertheless wants to keep certain keepsakes in memory of her mother. The rest, Osh suggests might be given away. The treasure is divided (as her brother, should she find him, might reasonably expect to have some of his parents’ legacy) and hidden in separate caches–Crow eventually chooses to give most of hers away to orphanages. It feels like this variation on the found treasure plot ought to be significant, yet Crow’s dithering over what to do with it and the questions that her possession of it raises are things the book skims over as if it weren’t interested.

It strikes me that many of the things I admire about Beyond the Bright Sea are negatives–it doesn’t treat Crow’s biological family as more significant than the one she has created; it doesn’t provide us the happy sibling reunion we might expect; Crow’s adventures don’t need to involve lying to or concealing things from the people she loves; no one is rich off the treasure. The thing that it actively does do, its treatment of its loving community, is worthwhile, and I wish I felt that the book was willing to centre it and value it more. Ultimately the thing about this book that matters to me is Osh’s deep conviction that the island life that he and his companions have built is something fragile and precious, that must be protected and defended.

 

 

 

 

 

*I’m using “ethical” here to signify that the characters have given real thought to the morality of these actions/relationships, not to imply that their choices are unquestionably Correct.

 

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