Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder, 269 pp, RL 4
Before I begin writing my own review of a book often before I even begin reading a book, I will read a handful of other reviews from a few different sources I have found to be reliable. I didn't do that with Orphan Island, the newest book by Laurel Snyder, with evocative cover and map art by David Lichtfield. I just jumped right in, slate (mostly) blank, and I'm so glad I did. Orphan Island is so many things, stirs up so many feelings and calls to mind so many moments and memories. With her writing, her world building and her protagonist Jinny, Laurel Snyder reminded me more powerfully and intimately what it felt like to be at the cusp of adolescence more than any book I have ever read, more than any trip down Memory Lane flipping through a photo album. Reading Orphan Island made me remember what it felt like to be headed into a world I could could not see ahead of me, but only imagine. What it felt like to live in a world - and a body - that seemed to be breaking apart and growing hostile. And Orphan Island reminded me of what it felt like to know that you had to physically, emotionally, leave one world behind because you also knew that staying would ruin it. For me, reading Orphan Island was being reminded of the hard truths of what it means to grow up (and be human) presented in this perfectly crafted metaphor that took me back in time to feelings I didn't think I wanted to relive. And, as with all great works of art, reliving those painful feelings through a work of art made them less painful and more beautiful. Of course young readers, especially those about to enter puberty, will not get the same experience reading Orphan Island that I did, but I have no doubt that they will take something away with them when they turn the last page of this book, even if they don't realize it for several years. Readers of Orphan Island, regardless of age, will not forget Orphan Island.
Nine on an island, orphans all,
Any more and the sky might fall.
This is a rhyme that every inhabitant of Orphan Island learns. When the green boat sails through the thick shroud of mist that surrounds the island carrying a young child, maybe three or four-years-old, the eldest child gets in the boat and departs, the next oldest child becoming the elder and taking responsibility for teaching the new arrival. The eldest child takes the youngest, referred to as a Care, under her or his wing. The islanders have rules and the island itself has rules. The resources of the island, which include fruit and nut trees, an apiary and a "wish hole," a magical latrine that never needs cleaning, are not infinitely renewable, as the orphans learned when one of them picked all the curlyferns and they didn't grow back. The wildlife on the island, feral cats and wild chickens, snakes and sea creatures, are not a threat to the orphans, who have learned how to harvest and cook for themselves, the older orphans passing their skills on down the line. There are cabins, a covered outdoor eating area and a cabin with a couch and a shelf of books, all of which have been written in by someone named Abigail. Life on Orphan Island is harmonious and even happy, the children not seeming to give much thought to the arrival and departure of the green rowboat.
That is, until Deen leaves and Jinny becomes the Elder. Jinny struggles with her Care, Ess, who refuses to learn how to swim and how to read. Jinny misses Deen desperately, remembering their friendship every day. And, Jinny is not doing her other job, training Ben, the next-in-line to be Elder, how to teach his future Care everything he will need to know, the way that Deen trained her. As Jinny tries to keep up with her responsibilities as Elder, letting the other orphans take over some of her duties when they gently offer their help, she is plagued with thoughts and questions she can't find answers to. Snyder does a stunning job creating a sense of isolation, first for the nine orphans living on the island then, as we get to know Jinny, the isolation of being the Elder and knowing that your time in the only home you've ever known is quickly coming to an end. Somehow, Snyder makes this isolation everything but depressing. The island world she created is cozy and homey and safe and despite their differences, the orphans all get along, knowing and respecting each other's differences. And, in the isolation of being an Elder and thinking about her life ahead, Jinny is sometimes bewildered and defiant, but buoyed by the connection with her Care.
Jinny begins to question things. She begins to want to spend time by herself and a few of the other orphans accuse her of being moody. And then the small, green boat appears through the mist and Jinny does not get in the boat. From this moment on, the tension that Snyder has been building up to becomes palpable. Everything Jinny seems to do, every decision that she makes, is wrong and is reflected in the natural world around them. And she does not see how her choices are affecting the others, she doesn't realize that some of the older orphans might want to leave the island. Jinny makes some discoveries, about previous inhabitants of the island and about herself, but she never gets any definitive answers, nor does Snyder ever give answers to the mysteries of the island and the orphans themselves. In the end, Jinny finds enough courage and belief within herself and she makes the right, inevitable decision.
I hope I have done justice to the magic that is Orphan Island. Actually, I hope that I have told you just enough about this book to convince you to read it and give it to a young reader without sharing any details that deter from the trance you will find yourself in as you read it.
Source: Review Copy