Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Story Better Told--a review of LIZZIE BRIGHT AND THE BUCKMINSTER BOY by Gary D. Schmidt

Turner Buckminster is a “preacher’s kid,” and he doesn’t fit into his new life in Phippsburg, Maine, in 1912.  His peers don’t accept him, his father is demanding, and the townspeople hold him up to higher expectations than he can sometimes meet.  He is so miserable that all he can do is think about “lighting out for the territories.”  Then, a chance meeting with a local island girl, Lizzie Bright, gives him hope that life will be more bearable after all.  However, the events that are about to spiral out of control for the star-crossed friends are less than hopeful.  In fact, they are tragic.  In an honest coming-of-age novel about a boy on the verge of manhood, Gary Schmidt delivers a cast of memorable characters and an unforgettably tender story in his Newbery Honor book. 

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt

Some readers may not know that Gary Schmidt is an English professor. His careful crafting of Turner’s story reflects his vast knowledge of literature as a craft. In Turner’s encounter with a whale, readers hear definite echoes of Melville’s Moby Dick:

“Turner reached the whale’s eye, and they looked at each other. They looked at each other a long time—two souls rolling on the sea under the silvery moon, peering into each other’s eyes. Turner wished with a desire greater than anything he had ever desired that he might understand what it was in the eye of the whale that shivered his soul” (80).
The motif of cold, moonlight is repeated in the death of Turner’s father and in the new life Turner forges for himself.

Schmidt’s characters are wonderfully drawn, and most of them are dynamic and full of surprises. The villain, Mr. Stonecrop, is truly regenerate, and Schmidt leaves his final end unresolved. The crotchety Miss Cobb, for whom Turner is forced to play the organ for one hour every afternoon, is a perfect old spinster, obsessed with what her last words might be. She reprimands Turner, “Have you thought about what your last words might be? You’re never too young to know what your last words might be. Death could come along at any moment and thrust his dart right through you” (25). Seeming friends become insidious enemies, and enemies become lasting friends. Schmidt uses the various seasons of the New England landscape as a backdrop for the story. Spring and summer bring hope and fulfillment while fall and winter harbinger change and death.

The novel humanizes a horrific story. I recently read about what happened to African-Americans of this era when they were sent to mental institutions.  While the true story of Malaga’s ousted community may be too much for young readers to bear, Schmidt’s book raises awareness of the event, which is truly a dark blotch in American history, in a way that young people will understand. He doesn’t sugar-coat the events, but he limits the reader’s experience to that of Turner’s, which is heavy enough for a young reader. Lizzie’s death is truly upsetting. Themes of becoming an individual, friendship, and love and loss are universal. More importantly, they are realistic, as the novel doesn’t deliver a fairy tale ending, even when it seems that one might be possible. Young adults will respond to Schmidt’s respectful candor. The story of Malaga Island—a story best left untold—is probably best told through the lens of historical fiction. Schmidt is a master storyteller.

Awards and Reviews

Newbery Honor Book, 2005
Michael L. Printz Honor Award, 2005
Young Hoosier Book Award
Volunteer State Book Award
Garden State Teen Book Award
West Virginia Children’s Choice Book Award
Sequoyah Book Award
Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award
Virginia Reader’s Choice Awards

“Schmidt's writing is infused with feeling and rich in imagery. With fully developed, memorable characters and a fascinating, little-known piece of history, this novel will leave a powerful impression on readers.”—Connie Tyrrell Burns, School Library Journal (May 2004)

“The author bases this story on facts from the early 1900s, telling it with a lyrical style that supports Turner's steady path toward maturity while dealing with racism, religious belief, intellectual development, family ties, and loyalty. There are many subtle dimensions to Turner's progress with grace under pressure as he learns to stand up for what he believes.”—Patricia Morrow, VOYA (August 2004)

“Schmidt takes his time with his tale, spinning gloriously figurative language that brilliantly evokes both place and emotion. Turner himself is a wonderfully rich character, his moral and intellectual growth developing naturally from the boy the reader first meets. There can be no happy ending to this story, but the telling is both beautiful and emotionally honest, both funny and piercingly sad.”—Kirkus Reviews (N.d.)

Lesson Extensions

Watch “Malaga Island: a Story Best Left Untold,” a radio documentary and photo exhibition that covers the true story of what happened to people of mixed race from the Malaga community. There are images of the island and its settlers before and after. The truth hurts more than the fiction, so beware of sensitive students.

Random House offers an excellent Educator’s Guide for this novel covering themes such as coming-of-age, family relationships, friendship, racism and prejudice, and self-esteem. There are curricular connections to various subject areas, a writing exercise about personification, and a revealing interview with the author.

Katherine Ruppel (2006) has created A Teaching Guide for Gary D. Schmidt’s Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. This standards-based unit emphasizes literary elements as well as issues of prejudice and personal responsibility.

Vital Stats
Schmidt, Gary D. (2004). Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. New York: Random House. ISBN 0553494953

Rosenthal., R. and Philbrick, K. (2009). Malaga Island: a story best left untold.  Accessed November 17, 2011 from

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