Bright Island – Mabel L. Robinson

I wish I’d known this book when I belonged to the target age group. It feels like an unexpected amalgam of a Heidi, Anne of the Island, and Swallows and Amazons, with a little Railway Children thrown in for good measure – the isolated girl who is just fine with staying that way, who has to carve out a place for herself among townsfolk; the extraordinary girl going away from her beloved home to school, a completely foreign environment where she is seen as a hick but proves herself and wins good friends with a very good mind and an unaffected attitude; the completely unsupervised children messing about with boats – and a timely rescue or two. But it in no way owes anything to any of these stories: it is – despite what I just said – very much itself.

Bright Island – so called because it shines in the sun and acts as a beacon for boaters – is the home of the Curtis family, and always has been, as long as there have been Curtises. It is its own world off the coast of Maine, almost entirely self-contained. It used to be home to a large family: not too long ago Gramps, the patriarch, ruled over his son’s family: Scottish wife, four strapping sons, and fey daughter. But as the book opens Gramps has died and the four sons have married and left the island, to their father’s dismay, and only Thankful, the youngest, remains. She is more of a sailor than any of her brothers ever were, and scorns the decision all of them made to marry and take work off the island (as she scorns the silly mainland wives they’ve taken) – all Thankful wants is to continue as she’s always lived, learning from her former-schoolteacher mother, working around the farm, and sailing every available minute.

When it is decreed that she must go to the mainland to go to school, she digs her heels in. Hard. She has no desire to meet new people, or to learn more than her learned mother can teach her, or to leave the island for any reason whatsoever; the idea of an undetermined time spent at a landlocked school – especially boarding with those sisters-in-law by turns … It’s a nightmare. But as it is decreed, so it must be done, and though she wins a battle or two, the war is a lost cause to her, and off she goes.

There are plenty of fish-out-of-water coming-of-age stories in which the ugly duckling either becomes a swan or proves s/he was never ugly to begin with, and ducklings are terrific. This fits in well amongst them, but stands strong – and bright – on its own.

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