July 19, 2018
(+++) PLEASURES AND PERILS OF WATER AND AIR
Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea. By Lynne Rae Perkins. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Gone to Drift. By Diana McCaulay. Harper. $16.99.
Float. By Laura Martin. Harper. $16.99.
Sweet, well-meaning and oh so sincere, books such as Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea and Gone to Drift are water-centered and written to wring the occasional drip of water, in the form of a tear or two, from preteen readers. Lynne Rae Perkins’ novel is a notably quiet one, simply the story of a pleasant week’s beach vacation featuring mildly adventurous Alix Treffrey; her older and more-reserved sister, Jools; and their parents. There is no great drama here, only gentle discovery of the ocean for the first time, envisioned by Perkins as a series of small events with insightful cumulative effect – shown through Perkins’ pleasant black-and-white illustrations. Sand castles, long walks on the beach, the discovery of beach glass and indulging in crafts projects using it – these are the mildly memorable events that Alix and Jools experience. Not everything is sweetness and light: at one point, Alix gets temporarily separated from her parents, and at another she is nonplused when a giant june bug lands on her arm. But these minor inconveniences are quickly resolved, and the sisters move on to one small enjoyment after another. That, in fact, is Perkins’ point: the small things in life, cumulatively, are what matter and what make a vacation (and by implication other events in life) special. One must just stay open to the wonders of the everyday. For instance, the planned family visit to a wildlife refuge seems to Alix to be a “boring walk through deserted places” – until the girls get to see some raccoons and Alix has a chance to hold an injured falcon that is being rehabilitated. What is important, as Alix neatly sums things up at the end of the week, is that the vacation has turned out to be very different from what she and Jools expected – and that is a wonderful thing, because it has been so delightful in so many ways that Alix now anticipates amazing things continuing to happen to her. In truth, nothing in Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea is particularly amazing, but everything is gentle and nice and family-focused. This is the sort of book that parents would like their preteen daughters to read and enjoy. Some will.
Darker and more intense, Diana McCaulay’s novel about her native Jamaica has a preteen boy protagonist rather than a preteen girl, and the story is significantly grittier: this is no tale of the deliciousness of a family beach trip. It is the story of 12-year-old Lloyd “Lloydie” Saunders and his much-loved grandfather, Maas Conrad, a fisherman who has gone to an area called Pedro Bank and has not returned. Lloyd’s parents seem unconcerned and preoccupied, his father with rum and his mother with selling the fish that Conrad catches. This is not an old-man-and-the-sea story so much as it is a standard-issue grandfather-and-grandson-bonding one, with Conrad’s personal history (which appears from time to time during the narrative of Lloyd’s search for him) revealing much about Jamaica and the changes the island is undergoing. It becomes apparent as Lloyd looks for his grandfather – by asking around Kingston and searching with the help of his friend, Dwight – that Conrad is shipwrecked and injured. Readers know this well before Lloyd’s search – which includes stowing away on a Coast Guard ship – leads him to some unpleasant truths. These involve dolphin poaching, and McCaulay is sure to trot out some marine biologists and references to the evils of greed and globalization: although this is a fairly quietly told story, it has a strong social agenda just beneath its surface. McCaulay’s use of patois dialogue gives the novel a sense of authenticity, and young readers interested in that rather unusual form of immersion into Jamaican life will find the story intriguing. But the eventual revelation that the depravity of Lloyd’s parents goes well beyond their uncaring relationship with both Lloyd and Conrad means this is scarcely a book for all tastes: it is a novel-length advocacy pamphlet (actually an expanded version of what was originally a short story) that immerses readers in economic and environmental issues. And it insists that those matters be seen strictly from a perspective that limits the book, which hints from time to time at the longstanding relationship of humans and the sea but which founders on the shoals of the lessons that McCaulay is determined to teach.
A much lighter and frothier book whose title refers not to water but to air, Laura Martin’s Float is intended as a romp with some serious elements – and has a kind of old-fashioned camp-novel feeling that will charm some readers while likely seeming simplistic and unrealistic to others. Some of the lack of realism is quite intentional: Camp Outlier, where the book is set, is for boys who have been labeled RISKs. The acronym stands for “Recurring Incidents of the Strange Kind” and involves preteens whose uncontrollable and poorly understood powers range from spontaneous combustion to accidental invisibility to X-ray vision to time travel – this last being at the center of the book’s rather fragmented plot. The underlying, entirely unsurprising theme is one of camaraderie and acceptance, of finding others like oneself and working together on each other’s behalf. Emerson, the 12-year-old protagonist, has a tendency to float unless he wears weighted shoes and a vest to keep himself on the ground; hence the novel’s title. He and the other boys are taken to (or herded into) Camp Outlier by the government, which has the usual slightly sinister but essentially protective role common in books of this sort. The story focuses on Emerson and the other boys in Red Maple cabin, and in particular on time traveler Murphy – who, the boys discover, is doomed to disappear forever unless they can do something. Do what? That is the question here, and the central element of the boys’ bonding. Well, that is one such element, the other being a rather embarrassing (and distinctly archaic-seeming) scene in which older campers force the boys to wear dresses and makeup as an initiation – a scene that Martin brings back repeatedly as a joke that, in the year 2018, may not come across as particularly funny. Float is intended as lighthearted fun, and it is just that some of the time, as in the pranks played at the camp and the exploration of the boys’ peculiar powers that come out of nowhere. The serious “save Murphy” element fits uneasily with the otherwise rather whimsical storytelling, though, and the book as a whole has a kind of cobbled-together feeling that keeps it from being as enjoyable as Martin clearly wants it to be.