Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Reading Through History: Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt (2004)

It is 1912, and Turner Buckminster and his parents have come to Phippsburg, Maine, so that his father, Reverend Buckminster, can begin to serve as the town's minister. Turner instantly hates Phippsburg, especially compared with his former home of Boston, and he resents the very high and unreasonable expectations the townspeople have for the behavior of a minister's son. When he meets Lizzie, a young girl living on nearby Malaga Island, he feels that he has found a kindred spirit, even though Lizzie is black and Turner is white. Unfortunately, the people of Phippsburg feel that the interracial community on Malaga Island is an undue burden on their town, and they want Reverend Buckminster to help them drive its residents out. Caught between loyalty to his father and his convictions about right and wrong, Turner struggles to do all he can to save his friend and her community.

This fascinating novel, which received Printz and Newbery Honors in 2005, explores the true story of a real time and place, in which the ugliness of prejudice and hatred served to destroy an entire community. Though author Gary Schmidt has taken some liberties with the timeline to suit his story (all of which are pointed out and explained in the author's note), he has remained true to the emotions of the situation and has done a wonderful job of conveying Turner's feelings of frustration and profound sadness. Turner himself is the main reason to read this book, as he is utterly believable and sympathetic and keeps the reader in suspense with his willingness to flout what is expected of him and put himself in danger repeatedly.

Unfortunately, the friendship which is meant to be the heart of this story does not ring true. The interactions between Lizzie and Turner feel forced and contrived, and their friendship itself really only becomes interesting when others begin to react to it. Turner is such a well-developed character that Lizzie falls flat by comparison, and it feels, at times, that she is being used merely as a storytelling tool and not developed as a character in her own right. I also had a hard time remembering that Turner has a mother. Often, it is annoying when novels conveniently kill off parents to give their child characters more freedom, but this is one situation where the mother character seemed completely superfluous. I wish the author had given her something more to do besides occasionally suggest that Turner disobey his father.

This book reminds me a lot of two other historical Newbery novels. Because Turner spends much of his time playing the organ for an elderly woman obsessed with what her last words will be, and who will be there to hear them, I was constantly reminded of Dead End in Norvelt, wherein a young fictionalized Jack Gantos must assist an obituary writer. Turner and Jack are very similar main characters in general, as they are frequently at odds with their fathers and always under the scrutiny of their neighbors. The other book I kept thinking about was book 25 on my reading list for this project: The Witch of Blackbird Pond. There are many parallels between the way suspected witches are treated in Connecticut in Blackbird Pond and the way the Phippsburg natives view the island of Malaga. The abuse of religion is also a common theme in both novels.

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy is a worthwhile read, if only because it makes the reader aware of an historical event they might otherwise overlook, but because of its narrow focus on one specific place, it would be hard to tie into a larger unit of study. Therefore, it probably won't be much use to me as a homeschooler for anything other than supplemental or recreational reading.

1 comment:

  1. Wow you got me interested, I went off and did some googling and learnt lots more,

    this link was fascinated. I really didn't expect this to have occured just last century. and that the institutionalized some and moved all the graves!

    Mind you it made me think of Australia's own shameful story of our Stolen Generation