Sunday, October 28, 2012

Book Review: Bright Island by Mabel L. Robinson (1937)

Thankful Curtis is the youngest of Mary Curtis’s children and the only girl. Her six brothers have married and left the family home on Bright Island, but Thankful has no such desires. She wants to remain in the place she loves most, where she can hold tightly to memories of her beloved grandfather. Unfortunately, Thankful’s family is concerned that she hasn’t been properly educated about “what a girl is for,” so they decide that she must attend school on the mainland. In the year that follows, Thankful learns the ways of the modern world, which has many more luxuries than her island home, and comes to a greater understanding of herself as a human being.

Bright Island was originally published in 1937, and it was a 1938 Newbery Honor book. It seems that it has been out of print for a while, but Random House has just published a 75th anniversary edition, which I read courtesy of NetGalley. Bright Island is a coming of age story of a type that no one seems to write anymore. Thankful’s age is never identified, but based on her experiences at school, she must be a teenager, meaning this book would likely be classified as YA if it were published today. It certainly shares a lot in common with other young adult books. Thankful struggles with issues of family, identity, friendship, education, romance, and belonging. She must leave the safety of everything she knows and try to stay true to herself out in the real world. This is something every teen faces, either at the start of high school, or when he or she goes away to college.

The writing, despite being 75 years old, is very accessible. Robinson’s lyrical prose is beautiful - especially to read aloud - but the reader doesn’t get bogged down in her descriptions, as in other older books (The Yearling, for example.) Thankful and her mother are the strongest characters in the book, but even more minor characters, like Thankful’s antagonistic roommate, are written sympathetically, so the reader understands their motivations and believes in them as real people. The most interesting parts of the plot actually hinge on the visits of these minor characters to Bright Island. These scenes heighten the tensions between Thankful's island life and the modern world on the mainland and show the reader interesting sides to Thankful's character as well as that of her roommate and of Robert, a popular boy from school.

I expected this book to be similar to Swallows and Amazons, but Bright Island is much more character-driven. There are some sailing scenes, and I was thankful that I had read Swallows and Amazons because that helped with the sailing terminology, but this is not a sailing book, or even an island book. The island is a strong presence because of its importance to Thankful, but Thankful herself is really the center of the plot. It is through her experiences that the reader comes to terms with the inevitable, which is that we will all someday grow up and venture out into the world.

The illustrations by Lynd Ward are a wonderful addition to the story. They look old-fashioned by today's standards, but they do a wonderful job of immersing the reader into the natural world Robinson conveys with her words. I think my favorite image of the entire book is  the snowy illustration at the start of the chapter entitled "The Stranger Leaves Bright Island." I love the way Ward draws the sweep of the winter wind and each individual snowflake. I get cold just looking at the picture.

Bright Island should appeal to girls - and maybe boys, too - who like reading classic works of children’s literature. I think it would make a wonderful read for a mother-daughter book club, as the mother-daughter relationship is one of the central themes. Some read-alikes might include The Little House on the Prairie series, In Summer Light by Zibby O’Neal, and The Moon By Night by Madeleine L’Engle.

No comments:

Post a Comment