Beyond the Bright Sea, by Lauren Wolk (Dutton Books for Young Readers, May 2017)
(Reviewed by Sandy Brehl)
Writers debate the pros and cons of including prologues, especially in books for young readers. I’d advise writers mulling over that decision to read the prologues in Lauren Wolk’s Beyond the Bright Sea and also in Wolf Hollow (see review of Wolf Hollow here). In each, she sets a high bar for their use. Snippets of intriguing information are revealed through the unmistakable voices of her young female characters. Glimmers of mystery bob through those initial pages with just enough irresistible shimmer to spark curiosity and set the hook firmly in the reader’s mind.
I’m not a fisher-person, nor an islander, but I’ll extend the above analogy. It applies to Wolk’s skillful reeling in of those prologue readers. The early chapters of Beyond the Bright Sea unfold at a subdued pace, but one that manages to reveal stunning information: a newborn’s unexplained arrival on an isolated island in the North Atlantic, an austere but tender-hearted man who discovers the baby strapped to a boat and takes her as his responsibility, and a trusted neighbor woman whose steady presence anchors the unmoored pair into a sort of family. That purposeful pace sets the hook before the story accelerates.
The child, Crow, ages quickly to a preteen girl whose growing pains are largely in her heart. In those first few chapters we learn through Wolk’s skillfully side-eyed writing that Crow’s skin is darker than the other islanders, even in the summer season. They keep her at arm’s length, literally, but we share Crow’s suspicions that her skin color alone is not the reason for their distance. We also discover the blend of physical and moral strength and emotional pain of Osh, the only father she’s ever known. Miss Maggie, upright in posture, viewpoint, and resilient self-reliance, is a boundless source of security and comfort, despite her no-nonsense demeanor.
Thirty pages in, we’re fully committed to Crow, wondering with her who she really is, who would have tied her, as a baby, to a boat bench and launched her into the sea. Did her mother give her another name? Who are those “real” parents, ones she can rightly claim all the while reassuring Osh that he would always and forever be her “real” father, too?
We ache with her and him when we see those questions raise his fear of losing her. We feel the tension and stakes rise as Crow learns about the nearby but long-abandoned leper colony on Penikese Island. Even now the word “leper” generates misunderstanding, but in the years following the First World War the fear about what is now known as Hansen’s disease was rampant.
With each secret revealed, Crow’s nimble mind arranges facts amid glaring gaps. Her developing theories compel her to pursue answers relentlessly, exposing her and the people she loves to unimagined dangers. The rising-falling action never really ebbs, creating a book that exceeds the must-read label to a read-it-to-the-end-before-I-sleep story.
And that’s the way I read it, feeling the same driving compulsion that Crow felt. All the while, though, I knew I’d reread it– sooner rather than later.
And I did.
The second read was for the writer in me.
I’m not an island person, and Wolk definitely is. Even so, I’ve read other books with island settings, both classics and current ones, that took me to their worlds with vivid sensory grace. None, though, made me want to claim the island as my own.
None, until now.
Now I long to visit that little fictional, unnamed chunk of land off Cuttyhunk Island in the Elizabeths near the coast of Cape Cod. And, thanks to Wolk’s writing, I have visited it, virtually, and will again.
Her writing is as breathtakingly potent at describing physical circumstances as it is when revealing character and relationships:
“When I learned from Miss Maggie that coal squeezed by the weight of the world turned into diamonds, I looked at it differently and wondered what other rough and simple stuff held the promise of something rare.” (p.20)
“The flames in the distance, still burning in the night, had made it seem as if the sea itself had caught fire.” (p.38)
“I was so afraid of losing what I had, not sure what I could both cling to and still reach for without losing my hold.”(p.230)
In her debut novel, Wolk’s antagonist was a cunning, sociopathic girl who generated danger in a calculated way. In this novel the antagonist is a brute of a man, driven without a moral rudder by greed. His first appearance is a menacing and ominous one, achieved with a minimum of description or detail. As he reappears in successive scenes, the potential for harm escalates: to Crow, Osh, Miss Maggie and to the life Crow is beginning to understand.
I recommend this as highly as I did Wolk’s earlier Wolf Hollow, and I look forward to reading whatever she creates next.
Beyond the Bright Sea, by Lauren Wolk
Dutton Children’s Books • 2017
Hardcover, 304 pages
Juvenile Fiction/Chapter Book/Ages 10 –14
multiple starred reviews
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Reviewer Sandy Brehl is author of the Odin’s Promise middle-grade historical trilogy set in occupied Norway during World War II, including Odin’s Promise and Bjorn’s Gift. The concluding title in the trilogy, Mari’s Hope, was released September 2017. An active member of SCBWI, she lives in Muskego, Wisconsin.
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