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.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Book Review: Pigeon Post by Arthur Ransome (1936)

It’s summertime once again, and Nancy has a new project - prospecting for gold on High Topps. Unfortunately, there’s a drought going on, so the camping place she had in mind doesn’t have any water, and the whole team of prospectors is forced to stay at Mrs. Tyson’s farm, with Mrs. Tyson cooking the meals and supervising their every move. Nancy and her friends can’t stand not being able to do things for themselves, so they begin looking for ways to get out of this highly native situation. It looks hopeless at first, but then Titty takes up dowsing, Roger finds a hidden cave filled with gold, and Squashy Hat, a mysterious gentleman staying at another nearby farm seems to be up to something, making him the perfect enemy. Everything will be perfect, if only they can make a gold ingot to show Captain Flint when he returns from sea.

I had really high expectations for Pigeon Post, both because it’s an award winner, and because it once again brings together all three main groups of characters in the Ransome universe - the Swallows, the Amazons, and the Ds. Unfortunately, this book has the slowest start of any of the Swallows and Amazons series. I liked the introduction of the homing pigeons at the start of the story, and Dick’s ingenious system for alerting Mrs. Blackett when they arrive with messages, but I was confused by Titty’s weird reaction to her dowsing abilities. I liked seeing Nancy and company overcome the challenges presented by the drought, but I never for a second believed there could be gold, or that Squashy Hat could be looking for it. I spent the first three-quarters of the book waiting for it to get good, and finding it impossible to suspend my disbelief. This was the first time I couldn’t imagine along with the characters, and it really annoyed me to feel like the series had betrayed me by creating a situation where I couldn’t buy into the game.

Thankfully, after pages and pages of wishing for the good stuff, I was rewarded handsomely. The ending of this book is by far the most exciting of any in the series so far, and it puts the characters in the most danger they have ever been in. The entire last eighth of the book is so good it makes up for all the weirdness with the dowsing and the boring digging and smelting processes. Also, looking back on the book after finishing it, I also noticed some nice character development that has progressed over the course of the series. The fact that these characters who once could only dream of sleeping on Wild Cat Island can now build a well and a furnace shows that the characters are growing and maturing over time. This aging process is most obvious in Roger, who, for the first time, discovers the most important find of the whole summer - the cave containing the gold. While each book of the series is mostly self-contained, I love being able to see the picture and watching the kids grow up more and more with each book.

Besides Peter Duck, Pigeon Post is currently my least favorite of the series. I just didn’t get most of it, and if not for the great ending, I would have been disappointed that I wasted my time. I am very curious about the next book, We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea, and I hope it promises more real, rather than imagined, adventure.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Book Review: Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage (2012)

Moses “Mo” LoBeau has lived with the Colonel and Miss Lana in Tupelo Landing, North Carolina ever since she was a baby and washed up after a hurricane. Since then, she’s wondered about the woman she refers to as her “Upstream Mother”, whom she sends messages in bottles, hoping she will someday respond. Until recently, the identity of her biological mother has been Mo’s only mystery, but all that changes when Mr. Jesse, a grumpy regular customer at the Colonel’s cafe, turns up dead. Mo and her best friend, Dale - himself a suspect in the murder because he “borrowed” Mr. Jesse’s boat just hours before his death - decide to help the authorities solve this case by forming their own detective agency. What they uncover, however, is much bigger than either of them anticipates, and there are many twists and turns on their way to the truth.

I’m a sucker for a Southern story, so this book was a natural choice for me, and on top of that, Betsy Bird gave it a glowing review that stuck in my mind so that I recognized the book instantly when it arrived at my library. As it turns out, Mo deserves every bit of praise she received from Ms. Bird, because she is one heck of a memorable middle grade heroine! Mo’s way with words, her sense of humor, her can-do attitude, and her fearlessness in the face of adults make her stand out among her fictional peers and make the reader instantly want to follow her adventures. Tupelo Landing is also a very lively and interesting place, and it doesn’t take long for the reader to feel at home there. This sense of comfort and belonging immediately set the reader up to feel Mo’s sense of loss and betrayal when someone is murdered right in her own town.

I have to admit that I didn’t have very much trouble figuring out the mystery once all the clues had been revealed. That’s not to say it wasn’t enjoyable, or that the story isn’t worth reading, but most of the twists were not news to me by the time they were actually spelled out. That doesn’t make it any less exciting, though, as a storm, a kidnapping, and various other events really draw things out and build up the suspense to such a height that there was a certain point after which I refused to put the book down until the story was over. There are also some interesting insights into the relationship between Lana and the Colonel that come at the end of the story, and a big joke whose punchline made me laugh out loud.

Obvious read-alikes for this book would be Because of Winn Dixie and The Higher Power of Lucky, since both depict small Southern towns and both have motherless protagonists. Digging deeper, though, Three Times Lucky should also work well for kids who like mysteries with a strong sense of place, such as the Wilma Tenderfoot books, The London Eye Mystery, and Missing on Superstition Mountain.