Review of the Day: Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk
No author gets a free pass. Your last book have been a spot-on bit of brilliance, lighting up the literary landscape like a thousand Roman candles. Pfui. A writer is only as good as their latest book, as any jaded 10-year-old will tell you. And while I greatly enjoyed Lauren Wolk’s debut novel (and Newbery Honor winner) Wolf Hollow I also knew full well that the author originally intended that book to be a written work for adults. Beyond the Bright Sea, her next novel, is written specifically with a child audience in mind from the start. Would that change Wolk’s writing style at all? Could she maintain the same level of written sophistication if she knew the book was going to be read by young people, or would she veer off into the dreaded trying-too-hard territory known by too many authors all too well? Heck, would she even respect her audience or would she be writing down to them? In retrospect, I suspect that it didn’t matter much how I felt about the book walking into it. If I’d had high expectations, they would have been met. Low ones were simply exceeded. Beyond the Bright Sea is a slower, statelier novel than a lot of books out there, but once it reaches its full speed there’s no holding it back. Leprosy, pirate gold, orphans, shipwrecks, lost messages, they all crowd the pages and leave you coming back for more. Wolk actually knows how to write for kids, and not just that, write beautifully. The proof is in the pudding.
Crow says it was seeing that light on Penikese Island that started it all, but I don’t know if you’d agree. Maybe the real beginning was when Osh found her as a baby, washed up on the shore in a makeshift boat. Clearly her boat came from Penikese where the leprosy sanitarium was located. He could have turned her in to the proper authorities, but for a man escaping a past he’d never discuss, it was actually easier to raise her with the help of his neighbor Miss Maggie. Now Crow is older and she wants to know where she came from. Who her parents were. What she doesn’t know is that delving deep into the mystery will reveal a lot more than her family. There’s a man out there who thinks she has what he wants, and if Crow isn’t careful she’ll lose everything she has in pursuit of what she wants.
I certainly wouldn’t peg the book as a straight-up mystery, but after Chapter 10 that feeling does begin to pervade the pages. And if it is a mystery then Wolk is playing fair. She gives the kids all the clues they need, and no doubt some of them will solve some of the origins of Crow’s birth on their own. Wolk fills the book with mysterious happenings that are within a child’s grasp, and that goes double for the foreshadowing. Now I like to compare foreshadowing to spice. Some authors think the more you have, the better, and they’ll laden their chapters down with it so much that by the time the big event actually arrives it’s anti-climatic. Wolk is different. It isn’t that she uses less foreshadowing, she just parcels it out better. For example, a mention in the first chapter of the boat Crow arrived in and that Osh burned in the first makes her wonder why THAT particular wood got burnt. And yes, many is the chapter that ends with a breath of things to come, but they do what they are designed to do. They pull you further in.
In terms of character development, Wolk outdoes herself. We spend a long time with Osh, getting to know him as an outsider would, before Miss Maggie tells us a story that essentially reduces his personality down to its most perfect form. It’s the story of meeting a man who, when starving, would cut only a single arm off of the starfishes he caught for starfish soup. His logic was that he would live and they would live. A WWI survivor (we’re never certain about the degree of his involvement, but there are some distinct moments of PTSD) he bears not a little similarity to another haunted war survivor in Wolk’s books. Toby, the shell-shocked man in Wolf Hollow was far more damaged than Osh, but maybe if he’d found a way to cut himself off from the wider world (as Osh does) and care for someone, he would have thrived. Curiously, while we get great swaths of story with Osh, we know almost nothing about the other adult in Crow’s life, Miss Maggie. Why does she live alone? What was her life like once? And in true keeping with a child’s perspective regarding the adults around her, we never get a clear sense of Maggie and Osh’s ages. Some mysteries are not meant to be solved.
If Osh and Toby share similarities, what are we to make of Wolk’s latest villain? After reading Wolf Hollow I was struck by a single, piercing thought. The character of Betty in that book is, without a doubt, the most chilling psychopath I’d ever encountered in a tale for kids. And for a while there it seemed as though Beyond the Bright Sea didn’t have a baddie at all. When at last you do meet him, you don’t realize him for what he is (or the threat he represents) at first. It’s only when you get to know him better that you realize he’s actually the polar opposite of Betty. While she was a cunning little girl, able to use society’s expectations to her advantage, the man in this book is dumb as a box of rocks. By the internal logic of children’s literature itself that should make him less of a threat. Dumb villains are easy to outsmart and therefore pose no real harm, right? But it’s quite the opposite here. And as it happens he does share one particular quality with our dear Betty: He’s unpredictable. And unpredictability, as anyone can tell you, can get you killed.
Now Wolk’s the kind of writer where you feel this strange palpable sense of relief, if you’re a children’s librarian, delving into her book for the first time. Relief, that is, that she’s such an excellent writer. The kind of writer that makes you want to quote lines from her book out of context. That’s always my instinct, and why not? Here are some choice examples that I particularly enjoyed:
• “… feeling hurt and being hurt aren’t always the same thing.” (Re: leprosy)
• “What you do is who you are.”
• “So that’s writ in stone. The rest in water.”
• “… there are better bonds than blood.”
But would a kid actually want to read it? Well, that’s sort of a trick question, isn’t it? As any children’s librarian worth their salt knows, you can get a kid to read anything if you sell it to them correctly. A co-worker pointed out to me recently that the first chapter or so is relatively slow, compared to the rest of the book. That’s a bit unfortunate. Slow passages are fine, particularly if they are of a literary bent, but you wouldn’t usually kick off your book with them right from the start. Still, once the plot gets moving you’re in for a heck of a ride. There is true villainy and true love on these pages. There’s the mystery of adults who have learned too much and the foolishness of children who only want to learn more. A kid reading this book will read it on one level, an adult on another, and history clearer still. A bright, beautiful read.
On shelves now.
Like This? Then Try:
- Healing Water by Joyce Moyer Hostetter
- The Crow-Girl by Bodil Bredsdorff
- The Treasure of Maria Mamoun by Michelle Chalfoun
- The Wreckers by Iain Lawrence
Best Sentence: My library co-worker pointed out that this book contains one of the best sentences in children’s literature. I will point out that the sentence is a bit of a spoiler, so don’t read it if you haven’t read the book:
“We all knew that he’d send for the police in Falmouth and then, with his next breath, begin to spread the news that Mr. Sloan had been held captive in the leprosarium by a mysterious southerner.”
Like I say. Best ever.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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