Friday, April 16, 2010

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, by Gary D. Schmidt

"The Buckminster Boy" in the title is actually the book's protagonist; Turner Ernest Buckminster is a 13-year-old minister's son, who moves with his parents to Phippsburg, Maine, where his father is taking a position the Congregational Church. It is 1912. At first the problems he experiences are fairly standard for a "new kid" plot line - the boys in the town tease him, he was good at baseball in Boston, but here they pitch differently and he can't hit anymore... he's lonely and gets into trouble a lot, without meaning to.

Phippsburg is on the coast, and he ends up spending a lot of time by the water, where he meets a girl from Malaga Island, a small island just 100 yards from the Phippsburg shore. The girl is Lizzie Bright, and she becomes a good friend. Unfortunately, his parents and the "proper" people of Phippsburg don't approve of this friendship at all, because Lizzie is black.

And from here we start to see larger things - things larger than Turner can do anything about - start to happen in Phippsburg. The town elders have decided that they need to build hotels and attract tourists from New York and Philadelphia, and that the houses (or shanties, as they call them) on Malaga Island are a blight, and need to go away. The people who live in them should go away too, as Phippsburg has no need for paupers. It doesn't matter where they go, but they need to be gone by Fall.

With all this in the background, we watch as Turner's friendship with Lizzie grows, and they both get to know - and like! - an old lady in town who at first disapproved of both of them. We also watch as the tremendous mistake that the town elders are making becomes more and more obvious to Turner and also his parents (who at first were willing to believe that the town elders knew best). And Turner comes of age, when he realizes that he needs to make a stand.

The book doesn't end happily. It ends even less happily when you realize that the story of Malaga Island is true; Phippsburg researched until they found the "true" owner of Malaga Island (the people living on it had technically been squatting there for decades), from whom the state purchased the land and officially told the residents to move on. They were largely of mixed race, which had not been a real problem on the coast of Maine until the idea of eugenics became generally popular; but in 1912, it was a big deal, and not all of them could find a town that would let them stay. A few, including one young girl (who the author says doesn't have a recorded name), were removed from the island and sent to the Pownal Home for the Feeble-minded, where all but one of them died. The houses on the island were burned, and the graves in the graveyard dug up, the bones consolidated into five caskets, and reburied at the cemetery for the Pownal Home for the Feeble-minded. Gary Schmidt has fictionalized it a bit, but only in small details. The larger story is true, and terrible, and sad. And worth remembering.

The book is really well done. Seriously.

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