Review of the Day: The Line Tender by Kate Allen
There’s this song from the musical of Matilda that keeps going through my head when I read The Line Tender. Have you ever had a song get caught in your head because of an ironic connection? I’m sitting here, contemplating Kate Allen’s quiet, thoughtful, contemplative novel and then the lyrics from the song “Loud” appear in my brain. They say, “The less you have to sell, the harder you sell it / The less you have to say, the louder you yell it / The dumber the act, the bigger the confession / The less you have to show the louder you dress it.” If you’re unfamiliar with the show that’s the awful mother’s reasoning behind choosing pizzazz over brains. A lot of things sold to kids are easily slotted into the “pizzazz” category, and that’s not a bad thing. I love the loud and the flashy just as much as a 10-year-old might. That said, I also know that there’s a time and a place for loud and flashy literature, and there’s a time and place for intelligent, subdued writing. Not every middle grade novel out there has to have big set pieces, violent encounters, a roaring climax and a celebratory conclusion. There are books for kids that dare to be more thoughtful than pulse pounding. And if chosen freely by a child, they can unlock something inside. Something that means more to the person reading than anyone else. The Line Tender carries this promise in its pages. It’s the right book for the right reader.
When Lucy’s mom died, she was just seven-years-old. A lot of time has passed since then and the girl has grown up in the sleepy tourist town of Rockport, Mass. In the summer Lucy and her best friend Fred spend their days working on their extra credit field guide. When a large shark is captured close to the shore, Lucy thinks of her mother’s work as a marine biologist and shark expert. But why are the sharks moving so close to humans these days? If there’s an answer to that mystery, Lucy’s not seeing it. She’d rather enjoy the summer and her time with Fred. Yet when tragedy hits Lucy a second time, she finds solace not just in the field guide but in her mother’s old work. By hook or by crook, Lucy will see to it that her mother’s plans are not left undone. And along the way, she might just be able to help the three men in her life move on from grief, in their own ways, as well.
I’ve mentioned it before but it bears repeating that this isn’t a book that moves at a rapid clip. Recently I finished reading Eugene Yelchin’s Spy Runner which was so fast paced I couldn’t help but feel that if it physically touched a copy of The Line Tender, the two books would explode upon contact. As I read this book I tried to figure out what it might be about. A dead shark. No, wait, a missing dead shark. Must be a dead shark mystery novel. Wait, what’s that? They figured out it dropped into the sea? Huh. Okay, not a mystery. It wasn’t until the big reveal on page 109 that all the pieces fell into place. Once that happened, I felt a little more relaxed. It helped that I got keen on Allen’s turns of phrase. Lines like “I walked across the creaky floors to look out the window. In the light of the streetlamp, the leaves were bending upside down like it was going to rain.” Or, “There were three things on my mind, tangled up like necklaces in a jewelry box…” Or, “Goose bumps covered my back like a cape.” Here’s a good one: “Fred’s backpack sat like a peeled banana on the step.” And her science teacher’s bad drawings, “looked like preschool illustrations that someone had poked a hole in and deflated.” Sometimes it did feel like Ms. Allen was pushing things, like when she named her main character Lucy Everhart (a tiny bit on the nose with that one, don’t you think?). But for the most part, it was a relief to encounter an author unafraid to use her words.
Is it wrong that I’d hesitate to call this book “funny” (grief’s a helluva buzz kill)? Because while it’s no chucklefest, there are real moments of humor. Take, for example, the moment when Lucy spots her father, naked, in the side yard, pulling on his wetsuit. Not a page later her neighbor, Mr. Patterson says, “Hello, Lucy… Your father has a hairy keister.” “Yes, he does.” “I don’t like looking at it.” “No, sir.” End of chapter. What’s interesting about some of the book’s lighter moments is that I wouldn’t say they lighten the grief any. There’s lots of sadness here, but interestingly enough it didn’t feel depressing to me. Maybe that’s the advantage of having a pro-active protagonist. Lucy thinks and questions and acts. At one point she hears the advice that her mom used to give, “Don’t resist pain.” It’s meant to say that you shouldn’t repress your feelings, but Lucy hits the nail on the head when she responds, “I’ve been feeling pain all summer… Now what?” The answer is yelled from the formerly sleeping Mr. Patterson. “Adapt! Adjust!” Chew on that one a while, kids.
Clocking it at an impressive 350+ pages, The Line Tender looks impressive. Weighty. Like it’s making a pass at becoming the Moby Dick of middle grade. However, even a cursory glance will show you two things. First, much of the book is broken into exceedingly small chapters. Second, between a lot of those chapters are two-page spreads of sharks drawn in graphite. As you read the book you realize that these are meant to be Lucy’s art. The sophistication almost makes this unbelievable, but there’s just enough sketch to them to not completely go off the rails. Though credited nowhere on the cover or title page, this art is the work of artist Xingye Jin of Suzhou, China. Remember when I said the book wasn’t depressing in spite of its content? I think the art and the chapter lengths do a lot to keep a person from dwelling in grief. It’s natural to consider and contemplate grief, but dwelling on it, particularly in a book for young readers, runs the risk of drowning your narrative in sorrow. There is a quote at the beginning of the book from Rachel Carson that was expertly chosen. It reads, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” Turn the page and you see the first sketched shark of the book. And with every shark you encounter on these pages, there is a comfort to them. A repeated refrain of nature to get the reader through.
No kid is going to obsess like an adult reader over little things like time and place, but for a while there I may have had some difficulty immediately soaking in Allen’s words because I couldn’t figure out when the dang book took place. There are no cell phones, but people don’t really seem to use much outdated technology (at first). The price of candy seemed low, and VHS tapes were prevalent, but that didn’t really explain anything to me. Clearly Allen was setting the story in a pre-internet and cell phones era, but when? It was only when we discover that Lucy’s mother died in 1991 that you realize that this is a historical tale of the late 90s. After that, I was good to go.
Somehow or other Ms. Allen has the fortitude to withstand invoking the movie Jaws for a good 311 pages. For a book about great white sharks moving into areas where there are potentially swimming people, this feels like an act of resistance. Now I’ve mentioned that the book isn’t going to break any speed records, but a lot of that may be because at its heart this is a book that cares deeply about science, nature, and the natural world. This is a book for those kids that could patiently track data, sketch in silence, or exist in the outdoors for great lengths of time. It’s a book about family, the one you have and the one you choose. It’s also about grief, and time, and the different ways that we learn to cope. Do I wish the beginning cut through the treacle and got to the point of the book faster? Maybe a little. I don’t know that my ten-year-old self would have had the patience to keep with it. But if she had, if she’d stuck it through, I think she would have found a lot to love and enjoy. A book where science can be a balm.
On shelves April 16th
- The Line Tender
- By Kate Allen
- Illustrated by Xingye Jin
- Dutton (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
- ISBN: 978-0-7352-3160-3
- Ages 9-12
- On shelves April 16th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Book Jacket Art: It didn’t take long to find online, but I located what appears to be the original cover for this book. It’s fun to play compare and contrast with the one that graces the final product.
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.
SLJ Blog Network