The Lightkeeper’s Daughter
Published by: Random House
Three years have passed since Squid McCrae last saw her parents and the remote island off the coast of British Columbia where she grew up. She returns now at seventeen, a young woman with a daughter in tow. The visit, she knows, will be rough. Lizzie Island-paradise to some, a stifling prison to others-brings an onslaught of memories. It is the place of Squid’s idyllic childhood, where she and her brother, Alastair, explored the abundant natural life, and where they blossomed into precocious adolescents. But Lizzie Island is also the place where Alastair died. Squid blames her parents for Alastair’s death-especially her father, the island’s lightkeeper, a man anchored to his isolated surroundings. He couldn’t accept that Alastair wanted to leave. In fact, he didn’t allow it. Even Squid’s mother’s entreaties on behalf of her son didn’t succeed. And through it all, Squid was both her brother’s fiercest protector and his tormentor. Now the past collides with the present as Squid’s homecoming unleashes bittersweet recollections, revelations, and accusations. But nothing is what it appears to be. No one possesses the complete truth, and no one is without blame.
Praise & Awards
Selected, ALA Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults
Selected, Children’s Book Sense 76 Selection
Selected, New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age
“Lawrence writes with great power, unlocking the family mysteries with a mounting sense of suspense and a deft use of symbolism.”
— New York Times Book Review Read
“Lawrence (the High Seas Trilogy) returns to the ocean for this exquisite novel that conjures literally the nature and mood of an island haunted by tragedy…With adult characters every bit as memorable as the teen characters, plus its stunning ability to create a sense of the island’s rhythms and habitat, Lawrence’s novel not only lives up to the high standards of his previous works, but may well attract a wide adult readership.” *Starred Review*
— Publishers Weekly
“This eerie and emotional story of the reconciliation and redemption of one small family on one small island seems almost too large, too compelling to be held in the pages of one book. It is not an easy or comfortable read but for sophisticated teens, this lyrical novel is an experience not to be forgotten.” *Starred Review*
— School Library Journal
“The story sustains charged atmosphere of blame, guilt, and apprehension throughout, although, in the end, nature’s awesome beauty and the strengths of family ties offer some reassurance.”
—The Horn Book Magazine
Q: When did you develop an interest in writing? Did your teachers recognize your talent and encourage you?
A: My grade three teacher told my parents that I would grow up to be a writer. In later years, in junior high school and high school, creative writing class was my favorite part of school. I remember being praised but not encouraged. I was a very shy child, so it was intensely embarrassing if my stories were chosen to be read aloud, and excruciating if I had to read them myself.
In grade eleven or twelve, I volunteered to be a school correspondent for the neighborhood newspaper. But my first published story was so changed from the version I submitted that I never wrote another one. When I graduated from high school, though, I hoped to be a writer.
Q: In your acknowledgments you talk about Lucy Island as the inspiration for the setting of The Lightkeeper’s Daughter. What was your inspiration for the characters and story?
A: The first time I sailed to Lucy Island, there was a lightkeeper and his family living there. The last tie, their house was just a stub of foundations poking up from burned and bulldozed ruins. It was like a different island, sad and somber, and it’s the one the McCraes inhabit – with a different name so that the real and very happy lightkeepers won’t be mistaken for my fictional ones. The McCraes were inspired in part by the sense of loneliness and loss that lay thickly over Lucy then, and in part by the needs of the story. I gave each of them one strong desire, and their relationships arose naturally from the clashing of their different wants.
Q: You write “Alastair was good at everything because he only did the things that he was good at” (p. 101). How should we decide what to do, if it’s not simply the things we’re good at? Is there something you’re not good at that you enjoy?
A: It’s a bit of a Catch-22, isn’t it? You can never enjoy doing something you don’t do well, but if you do it badly long enough, you get good enough to enjoy it. There are many things I like to do now that were only painful at first. By never trying twice, Alastair limited himself to a very narrow range of interests.
Q: Tell us about your process. Some writers say that their best writing comes out of revising and editing, while others prefer the spontaneity of their first version. How do you work?
A: I love writing but don’t care much for rewriting. Once I’ve told a story, I tend to lose interest in it and want only to go on to the next one. I used to just start a novel knowing nothing of what would happen. I just began at the first page, wrote through to the last, and called the whole thing finished as soon as I reached the end. After many rejections, I realized I was doing something wrong. It’s my theory now (and I wonder sometimes if I didn’t just pick it up from someone else) that you can outline and write, or write and rewrite. But, really, it amounts to the same thing. A story that is started without an outline will become the outline, going through changes and revisions until it seems right.
Now I like to plan the story carefully and fully, going through it chapter by chapter until I know – for each of them – the beginning and the end, and most of what will happen in between. I like to know the characters, what they are like and how they talk. The writing always strays from the outline in places. But, like a new highway built beside an old one, they eventually rejoin.
Q: Do you have any personal experiences with whales? What is your connection to them, and why was it so important to you to include the whale in the book?
A: This story really began with the whales. The very first thought that inspired it was to tell the songs that whales might sing to each other. Its title then, and nearly till the end, was The Singing of Whales. Several years passed from the day I started the first version to the day I finished the last, all during a time when I spent entire summers wandering the coast in a little sailboat. I often saw whales, and sometimes sought them out. I bought a hydrophone to listen to their voices in the water, and it was always incredibly move to be near them. One time, we were overtaken by a pod of killer whales. We were going so slowly that they could have shot by, but instead they slowed as they passed. They surfaced right beside the boat and all around it, a big group of adults and children, and it seemed for a while that we were traveling with them. It was magical, really. The killer whales of the coast represent the ultimate freedom to me, and it breaks my heart that they’re dying.
Q: Usually we think about parents sacrificing for their children. Yet, in a way, Alastair sacrifices his future for Murray’s when he agrees to stay on the island. Do you think that happens often in families? How do you decide what to sacrifice for someone or something you love?
A: I think children seldom make even small sacrifices for their parents. But when they’re older, and adults themselves, they often make huge ones, I think. It’s ironic that Alastair, by giving his father what he wants, almost guarantees that Murray can’t hang on to it. I can imagine that Alastair might have gone to school, studied whales, and returned to Lucy Island one day. I can imagine, too, that Squid would have stayed, and that Murray would have died a happy man on his own little island. But Alastair found that he had given up too much, and by doing it had doomed them all. If sacrifice has a limit, I have no idea what it is. But I can’t imagine giving up life for a country, or even a tiny little island.
Q: At one point Hannah reminds Murray that “No man is an island” (p. 112). Do you agree? Do you identify with Murray’s desire?
A: Hannah, of course, is quoting the poet John Donne: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. . . .” I agree very much with that. The more firmly a person is connected to the mass of humanity, the better that person seems. At the same time, I understand Murray’s wish for a simple life in an idyllic place, free from the worries of the world. That he can’t have it, no matter how he tries, is a sad reality. Like most people, I think, I’m often less of an island than I’d wish, and sometimes more than I’d like.
Q: Why did you want to tell this story (particularly for a young adult audience)?
A: For a long time, I considered telling this story in a more straightforward way, beginning with Alastair’s birth and ending with his death. It would have been the same story, but very different. Trying to tell it as a series of memories was a puzzle that interested me through the planning and the writing. I wanted a sad story about people struggling for something close. That, to me, pretty well sums up what life is about.
In the bow of the ship, high above the sea, stands a girl of seventeen. She looks like a figurehead carved from wood, her arms never moving, her hair chiseled in place and painted with gold.
The ship carries her north at the speed of the wind, as though forever in a calm. The flags at the mast are twists of limp cloth, the smoke a gray column rising straight from the funnel. It’s the sea, not the ship, that appears to be moving. It bursts on the bow and roars down the sides in tumbling foam. It carries rafts of torn kelp and logs that tilt through the waves. Seagulls and auklets skitter away, but the girl stares only ahead.
At her side is her daughter, dressed all in red. Too small to see over the rail, she crouches instead on the deck, peering through the oval of the hawsehole. Her tiny hands are cupped on the metal, and she stares out between them, the way a cat watches from a windowsill. Wedged between her knees is a red plastic purse, its flap buttoned across a Barbie doll too long to fit inside. A frizzy head juts out from one end, a pair of pink feet from the other.
The sea marches past, bashing at the bow, flinging droplets of spray that skitter like beetles on the water. It surges below the girl standing there, now reaching toward her, now falling away as the ship, meeting a wave, rises to the crest. And far ahead a tiny bright cap appears on the skyline. A single white eye blinks at her over all the miles of water.
In a moment it’s gone, lost in the waves as the ship drops from the crest, as the foam at the bow billows toward her. But the girl watches and waits, and again it appears, the little red cap, the blink of the light. It’s what she’s been watching for ever since the Darby turned at the Kinahan Islands an hour ago. And at last she moves. She raises a hand and covers her mouth.
The island seems to rise from the sea like a surfacing whale. Trees and rocks appear, veiled in a silver of spindrift and mist. A tower forms below the red cap, at first so tiny and white that it makes the girl think of a gravestone. Then buildings emerge, red roofs and white walls. Squares of green lawn. Dark swaths of salal.
Each little piece fills the girl with a particular feeling, with a picture in her mind, or a smell or a sound. She was born on that island; she’s the lightkeeper’s daughter. Her name is Elizabeth McCrae, but all her life she’s been known as Squid.
“Tatiana, look,” she says. “That’s Lizzie Island there.”
The child doesn’t answer. She seldom speaks. Her little shoulders are bent, her head thrust forward. She’s always been small for her age, but now she looks tiny and fragile, closer to two than to three. Squid settles beside her, on the gray steel of the deck. She holds on to Tatiana as though the child might slide through the hole and into the sea.
Tatiana looks up, her eyes jiggling, all her teeth showing in her peculiar grin.
“You doing okay?” asks Squid.
“We’re almost there. You’ll meet your grandma and your grandpa. They’ve got a boat with a glass bottom, and a little tractor that can pull you in a wagon.”
Squid wants to tell her everything: about Glory, the little winged horse; about Gomorrah and the wailing wall; about Alastair’s flute and the singing of whales. But Tatiana isn’t listening. The child has already turned back to the hawsehole, watching the water rush past the boat.
On the island, the wind feels brisk. It drives the waves against the shore and shreds them into spray. It gusts up the rocks and over the sodden lawn, where Murray McCrae, the lightkeeper, stands in his khaki shorts.
“Darby’s coming,” he says, making it sound as though he doesn’t care, as though he hasn’t been watching for the ship since dawn first came to Lizzie Island. In his hands he holds the things the sea has cast ashore: strands of kelp and bits of bark and sticks like old men’s fingers, warted with barnacle shells.
Six feet behind him, Hannah looks up and turns toward the sun. It’s well to the south so late in September, and it glares off the waves, off the rocks wet with spray. She squints, then puts her hands to her face and peers through the tunnel made by her fingers, the shape of a heart on the sea.
The Darby is far in the distance. A plume of brown smoke, a speck of red for the hull. Her daughter’s out there, an hour away.
Murray carries his sticks to the edge of the grass and heaves them back where they came from, over the cliff and down to the sea. He claps his hands together, then hitches up his shorts. “Better get hopping,” he says. “I’ve got things to do. Sand to carry.”
In a moment he’s off on his little tractor, bulging above it like a circus bear. A rickety cart, rusted and squeaking, bounces behind him as he rattles down the boardwalk and into the forest.
Hannah goes the other way, over the trestle and up through the tower, out at the top to the platform that circles it. For nearly a week, a lone humpback whale has been feeding on the shallows off the island, and she looks for it now as she might watch from a porch for a friend passing by. The wind buffets at the long, dark dress of the lightkeeper’s wife, at the crimson scarf tied round her hair.
Once this was her favorite place, above the houses and the patch of emerald lawn. Ringed in by the railing, she was never frightened by the height, though she stood so high above the sea that the birds flew below her and the surf flickered white on the distant reefs of Devil Rock. Autumn, once, was her favorite time, a summer’s end when the whales and the birds stopped to rest on their southward migrations. But now the island is a prison, and the sea a wall around it. Autumn is the start of winter and the coming of the Undertaker. Even the wind makes her frightened.
She believes now that it has a voice. She has heard it often in the last three years—as a breath in the summer’s tall grass, as a whisper through the forest of moss-bearded trees. It has shouted her name in the storms that come from the south, when the gulls are flung through the sky like scraps of paper. She hasn’t told Murray any of this, but the voice on the wind is their son’s.
Yesterday he was there. When the storm was at its peak and the house rattled and shook, when the Canadian flag tore itself into streamers of red and white, she looked out and saw him in the flash of the light. He was gone in the darkness that followed: there and then gone. Poor Alastair—four years drowned—blown up from the sea in the storm.
Hannah shudders, remembering that, her vision of him. She moves back from the rail and leans on the glass. Though eighty feet above the sea, it’s stained with salt, remnants of last night’s storm. Hannah rubs at the white splotches with her hand, and then with the scarf, tearing it off to let her hair blow in tangles. Every five seconds, the light flashes in the cupola.
It’s a pathetic thing now, that light, a plastic dome on a little stick of a pole. The old lantern is long gone, the one that floated in its mercury bath, going round and around with a brilliance brighter than sunlight.