There are times when I think it would be wonderful to live on an island in a small community, surrounded by water, abundant nature around me. Tranquility and comfort would envelop me as surely as the waters caress the island’s shore. In Tricia Springstubb’s novel, Moonpenny Island, the island seems like that idyllic place. But every place has its mysterious and sometimes dangerous undergrowth.
Moonpenny is in the middle of Lake Michigan. It’s bustling with tourists in the summer, but once tourist season is over, it’s 11 year old Flor’s beloved home. She knows everyone. She’s the daughter of the one island police officer. She’s best friends with Sylvie, the island’s only other 11 year old. The book opens:
Transparent. That’s how Flor and Sylvie are to each other. See-through. Flor knows everything about Sylvie, and Sylvie? She knows things about Flor before Flor knows them herself.
Sylvie cheers Flor up or calms her down. Considers the same stuff funny or annoying. Won’t tease her for still being scared of the dark, not to mention those spiders with hairy legs, and loves pretending their bikes are wild horses only they can tame….”Best friends” does not cover it. They are each other’s perfect friend.
But Flor’s perception of this transparent and perfect friendship is suddenly altered when at the end of summer, Sylvie is sent to a boarding school on the mainland. Then Flor’s mother leaves to take care of her sick mother and doesn’t come back. Flor’s big sister is acting strange, sneaking out, and perhaps involved in something dangerous. All that Flor thought she knew and could see clearly has become opaque.
There’s tension everywhere. She discovers the home she thinks of as paradise is seen as a prison by many she loves. She’s angry. She’s confused. Yet she can see the limits of the island community, where the town clock has been stuck at 11:16 for years. “Flor quit paying attention to that clock long ago, but today it makes her depressed. Time can’t stop – things are too messed up. Time needs to get going, move along and make things better. But the stubborn hands refuse to move. They haven’t moved in so long, some bird made her nest behind the hour hand.”
Moonpenny Island has a wealth of fossils. A geologist, Dr. Fife, and his daughter, Jasper, arrive to excavate trilobites. He is a fountain of knowledge and good will, and she is shy but full of information about fossils and trilobites, one of the first creatures to develop sight. She also knows a lot about divorce and loneliness.
As the book progresses, it becomes more and more a metaphor about sight and vision. How we see things is based not so much on what is there, but what we need and what we want to see. Flor can’t stop the changes that life is bringing her way. She can’t stop her own growth.
Springstubb writes in crisp sentences that perfectly match Flor’s state of mind. There’s a lot of depth in how Springstubb describes things and makes clear the need for adaptations even if you’re never going to leave your own island. She has a wry sense of humor and a great eye for detail. Here are some jewels from the book:
Flor never has bad dreams, but it’s possible she does that night. When she wakes up, her legs feel week and crumply. Like she’s spent hours balancing on a narrow sliver of something, and not just her own mattress.
Get used to it! How can adults say these heartless things? “Get used to it” belongs in the same infuriating category as “Life isn’t fair” and “Someday you’ll laugh over this.” A horrifying thing must happen to your brain as you age. It must grow tough and rubbery, like an old pork chop left in the back of the refrigerator.
Blindness was once a natural state. Dr. Fife says the first eye was little more than an optic nerve. Whatever that is. Eyes had to develop. Can some people’s eyes still be a more primitive variety? Can eyes still be evolving? Will future humans be able to see stuff we can’t? Like the insides of things? The hidden, secret parts?
Mama says prayer isn’t asking for things. That’s wishing, she says. Mama! Put all her opinions together, you’d get a book fatter than the Bible. Real prayer is simply talking to God, Mama says. It’s opening wide your reverent, humble heart.
Sitting on the porch swing, eyes closed and hands folded, Flor tries. But within three seconds, she’s reverently humbly begging.
People think that evolution is all about getting stronger and bigger and faster. But no. Species evolve according to what they need. Not everyone needs to be big and powerful.
Moonpenny Islandis published by Balzer & Bray of HarperCollins Publishers. It’s marketed as a middle grade novel, but it’s a touching insightful read for anyone seeking stories that give them insight into the mysteries of growing up.
Tricia Springstubb is the author of What Happened on Fox Street, Mo Wren, Lost and Found, and Cody and The Fountain of Happiness. You can visit her online at triciaspringstubb.com
|From Common Fossils of Oklahoma — trilobites are everywhere|
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