Customer Review

38 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The price of learning what the whales already know, March 23, 2005
This review is from: Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (Newbery Honor Book) (Hardcover)
Having finally finished, "Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy", I see now that the 2005 Newbery year was one filled with books for older child readers. Whether those readers are into racism or autism, the subject matter of the winners was particularly complex and mature. And in none of these winners is the subject more mature than in "Lizzie Bright". Basing this tale on the true events that occurred on Malaga Island, just off the coast of Maine, the story is a thoughtful look at the meaning of racism, friendship, human connection, and loss. It's not going to strike the kids who read it as a cheery devil-may-care book. But its magnificent writing keeps it from becoming another "Kira-kira" sob-fest. In any case, it's the kind of story that'll give you reason enough to stop, think, and consider.

According to Turner Buckminster's calculations, he was in his new home of Phippsburg, Maine for approximately fifteen minutes shy of six hours when he realized that, "he didn't know how much longer he could stand it". For one thing, he's the son of the town's new minister. And when you're the minister's son you're expected to be the soul of virtue. Turner's not a bad kid, but he has a heck of a way of getting into trouble. It's only when he escapes to the seacoast and meets Lizzie Bright Griffin that things start to look up. Lizzie's one of the black people living on the tiny island of Malaga, just off the coast of Phippsburg. It's a poor community (this is 1912, after all), but they get by. Unfortunately, the town's been losing money and it seems the Buckminsters have been hired by the city's fathers to help them in their goal of ridding Malaga of its inhabitants so as to set it up as a tourism site. That means throwing Lizzie and all her neighbors off the only home they've ever known. As Turner comes to terms with what it means to shrug off the scandalized eyes of the townspeople, as well as his parents' disapproval, he learns that for all the sorrows life may hand you, there can sometimes be salvation in the blink of a whale's mysterious eye.

Now there's some pretty heavy-handed subject matter going on here. You have perfectly nice little old ladies and young lively black kids being carted off to insane asylums (1912 insane asylums at that). You have several major characters die, usually off-camera, without so much as a howdy-doo. You have evil presented as godliness (topical considering the times in which we live), and the good of the almighty dollar aligned with God's supposed will. And that's not even touching on the racism issues, the human rights issues, and the rights children have in the eyes of the law. This is a book about bullies and how one stands up to them. I think what I really loved about "Lizzie Bright" was that Schmidt never took the easy road out. There aren't any miracles here or unexpected changes of heart (save one, but it's believable). People in this book are a set of contradictions, but for all that they do bad things they may not always be bad people per say. Bad things happen to good people, and they happen a lot. If you don't want your kids to know this, then you may as well grab the nearest Dick and Jane compendium and pretend that history never happened. But if you want to give them a well-informed, sometimes dark, but always interesting novel to peruse, this is it.

Now I did have some qualms here and there. There's nothing I hate more than an author/filmmaker/playwright/etc. who relies on that old "magical-black-friend" motif. You know the one I'm talking about. You'll find it in any story where an uptight white person meets someone of a different race and suddenly gets in touch with the earth/their feelings/what's really important/and so on. And there is a bit of that here. There's also the fact that there's rarely a black person in this book who comes off as anything but saintly. I like my characters to have a little depth to them. A little good and bad. But here the blacks sort of fall under the "victim" banner and never leave it. I wish they had as much complexity as, say, Turner's preacher father, but there doesn't seem to be much chance of that. Still, Lizzie's okay. She's kind of a likable version of that gawdawful "Ida B" (another children's book that came out in 2004 and that you should avoid at all costs). Lizzie gets mad at inappropriate times and she's never as nice to Turner as she should be, so when I say that the African-Americans in this tale never show enough depth, I'm excluding the title character. Lizzie's a fascinating character, and one that you wish you saw more of.

This is a book to spark some highly hepped up debates. You may well find yourself shaking with anger on one page and sighing with infinite relief on the next. Schmidt really defines himself here as one of the finest children's authors living today. When you read the line of a character who asks, "So, Turner Buckminster III, when you look through the number at the end of your name, does it seem like you're looking through prison bars?", you cannot help but smile. Perhaps this book will not be remembered as Schmidt's best, though. I have a feeling that as an author he'll have a lot more to say to the children of the world. Let's hope they're bright enough to listen.
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E. R. Bird "Ramseelbird"
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Location: Manhattan, NY

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