The Plot (Without Spoilers): Lucy is a young teenager living in the coastal town of Rockport, Massachusetts, who spends most of her days days hanging out with her best friend Fred. Lucy’s mother was a marine biologist who studied sharks but who unfortunately passed away when Lucy was 7. When their teacher assigns an extra credit project to create an animal field guide, Lucy and Fred begin collecting information about local wildlife and are excited when a local fisherman hauls in a great white shark. An upsetting event adds extra urgency to their field guide project as Lucy finds that her developing interest in sharks connects her with the memory of her mother.
My Take: I really want to give this book 5 out of 5 stars, but I’m going to keep it at 4. Kate Allen is a talented writer who can set a scene in just a few words and also has a great ear for convincing dialogue. Several times throughout the book I found myself thinking, ‘That’s well written.’
My only criticism with this book is that the plot lacks urgency. I get that this is not a page turner and that the story is about moving through grief on our own time table. Still, there is a slow undertow to the 3rd act, which I would forgive if the ending had really build up to a rushing climax. But there is none of that here, which made the story feel a little, well, boring.
I want to be clear though, that for a patient reader, this is in many ways a special book. For those who are looking for fiction to show them how to grieve, I would highly recommend ‘The Line Tender.’
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website bio, when Kate Allen was a child, a magician once told her that she would be an interior decorator.
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: The green boat comes to the island once a year with a new child and then ferries the eldest child on the island away — thereby obeying the rule that only 9 children may live on the island at a time. But this year seems different for Jinny because her best friend Deen is leaving, thereby making Jinny the elder and breaking her heart at the same time. In Deen’s place arrives Ess, an adorable tangle of black curls whose responsibility for care falls to Jinny. As Jinny bonds with Ess and learns how to raise a child, she begins to question the rules of the island and why the children are even there in the first place. Jinny soon learns, however, that with curiosity often comes trouble.
My Take: Children stranded on an island inevitably brings to mind the book Lord of the Flies, but most of the similarities between the two novels end there. Much like William Golding, Snyder is interested in examining power structures, but her focus is more internal. The character of Jinny is growing, changing, and coming to new realizations — this change is more central to the theme than any fighting between the characters. Orphan Island is therefore in some ways more like Peter Pan or the Chronicles of Narnia than the Lord of the Flies. It is a book about childhood and the anxieties of it coming to an end. It is the realization that one can’t stay safe and comfortable forever. I applaud Snyder for not giving the reader easy answers to complicated questions and for making characters that defy pat generalizations. At the end of the book, we are not certain whether Jinny’s choices were wise or stupid, selfish or selfless. This troubling ambiguity makes great reading, so I would happily suggest this book to any mature middle grade reader that is ready to struggle with deeper questions.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website, Laurel Snyder is a terrible gardener and loves black licorice.