Once upon a time, I earned a Master's Degree in Literature and was a Professor of Literature and Composition. I had a wonderful time writing my Master's Thesis about Children's and Young Adult Literature, and I considered earning a Ph.D. so that I could continue to pursue the written word, including British, American, Latin American and other Global Literatures, Children's and Young Adult Literature, all types of genres and occasionally even poetry. But life takes you in unexpected directions, and so now I am working for a non-profit agency (you can read about that on my other blog, A Little Bit of Wonder). Although my job keeps me too busy to post as many book reviews as I would like, Recommended Reading is a place where I can continue to share my literary discoveries and knowledge as time allows.

Please note that I post reviews for books that I recommend reading, just like the blog title says. This means that I typically won't post a review for a book that I completely dislike. This isn't because I shy away from making negative comments, but rather because I don't want to waste your time or mine (I won't even bother to finish a book if it's not any good). For more on this, see the explanation of my Rating System.)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Book Review: Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy

Malaga Island lies off the coast of Phippsburg, Maine, at the mouth of the New Meadows River, and it was once the home of a small interracial community founded after the Civil War by former slaves. The good citizens of Phippsburg felt that Malaga was an eye-sore, and local newspapers printed stories about the “degenerate community” on the island, attracting even more ire. So when Phippsburg wanted to attract tourists to their town in the early 1900s, Malaga residents were forcibly evicted by a “clean-up party” and sent to a mental hospital in Pownal, Maine. Their freedom ripped away from them and their homes destroyed, many of the residents of Malaga died shortly after being fraudulently committed to the School for the Feeble-Minded – and it was only in April of 2010 that Maine legislators officially recognized the gross injustice.

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, Gary D. Schmidt’s young adult novel that won both the Newbery Honor and Printz Award, is based on these historical events. The story traces the friendship between a Phippsburg newcomer named Turner Buckminster and Lizzie Bright, a young African American resident of Malaga. Turner’s initial tale of woe is one hat is common to many main characters in Children’s/YA Lit: the new boy in town feels out of place and isn’t able to make friends. The Phippsburg boys quickly put Turner to the test, watching to see if he can he hit a baseball and jump off a cliff into the sea – and Turner miserably fails. His isolation is exacerbated by the fact that he is the minister’s son and so expected to wear starched white shirts and behave in certain proper ways at all times. It does not take Turner even a day to realize that his new life will be a lonely and miserable one, especially when his parents begin sending him to read and play the organ for their cranky elderly neighbor Mrs. Cobb.

But then Turner meets Lizzie Bright. Down on the shore, they begin tossing around baseballs and working on Turner’s swing. They search for crabs and clams, then take them home to Lizzie’s grandfather who makes terrific chowder. Lizzie introduces him to the other children who live on Malaga Island, and they all play like they are sea gulls – free from the constraints that Turner feels on the main land. The minister’s son has finally found haven that might make his new life bearable.

But when Turner returns home, he is greeted by disapproving deacons of the church who are pulling all of his father’s strings. The prominent residents of Phippsburg want to attract the tourists to town and so want to evict the African Americans from Malaga – and Turner and his father get in the middle of this historical conflict. Reverend Buckminster is at first unwilling to oppose the deacons and townspeople who pay his salary and so Turner incurs his father’s anger – but hopes that eventually the good Reverend will stand up for his new friends who call Malaga their home.

Of course, because the novel is based on historical events, readers know that the story is moving toward the inevitable tragic conclusion – the eviction of the community on Malaga Island. The real question of the novel, then, is how Turner will react to the injustice wrought by the citizens of Phippsburg, the destruction of his haven and the deaths of his new-found friends. The reader is left to discover how the historical events of the novel will shape the young man – will he become prejudiced? Jaded? Or will he continue to stand by his own moral beliefs?

Schmidt shapes this story into a beautiful coming-of-age novel, written in very poetic language that illustrates how both Lizzie and Turner have an appreciation and respect for life that the rest of Phippsburg seems to lack. Different passages bring the setting and the weather of coastal Maine to life with luminous descriptions and help us understand the connection that Turner and Lizzie feel with the stunning nature that surrounds them:

“The sea surge that had drawn up the coastal waters of Maine poured past the cliffs and tore along the ragged coast… When it had finished its fussing, it seethed back down the New Meadows River, sluicing between the mainland and the islands. It spent its last surge on one rock-shouldered heap just a spit or two off the coast, frothing over the mudflats, setting the clam holes flapping, and carrying a small, startled crab out from its weedy hiding place. It tumbled upside down up the island shore and onto a toe stretched toward the water.

“Lizzie Griffin, who belonged to the toe, grinned at the crab’s frantic turnings as it tried to sort out claws and legs. Its shell was so pale that she could see the mess of the inner workings. Another almost-spent wave came up behind and tumbled it off—claws and legs all to be sorted out again. Lizzie plucked her toe and the rest of her foot out of the covering mud… she turned and scrambled up the outcroppings, picking up the hatchet that was to have been splitting kindling all this time. But she could hardly help it if there was something so much better to do, like watching the tide come in.”

This connection with nature, this respect and maturity cannot save Lizzie – only help her to “see things straight.” But even though Turner cannot control the course of events, his respect for life helps him to deal with and react to the prejudices of Phippsburg’s prominent residents. Even before he becomes the more mature, realistic young man that he is at the end of the novel, Turner’s desire to learn from nature characterizes him as a more moral and upstanding person than even his father. He is filled with awe when he encounters whales and joyful at the discovery of Charles Darwin. He is still pure, still idealistic, still relatively untouched by hatred, greed and fear. He still tries to believe that the citizens of Phippsburg and the residents of Malaga can get along – which is why the inevitable tragedy remains heart-breaking even though it is the obvious conclusion.

Lizzie Bright is a novel that teaches how to be both realistic and idealistic – how to hope for something better while understanding what is. It is a great read for all ages, which is why it received both the Newbery and the Printz Honors. Check this one out for yourself, your kids and anyone else that you can think of…

This review participates in the Y.A. Bliss 2011 Historical Fiction Challenge.

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