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Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy: Gary D. Schmidt

I picked up Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, by Gary D. Schmidt, at the airport recently, and finished it the same day. It's a quick read, but one that leaves you thinking about it afterwards. The story is based on an actual historical incident that occurred on a small island off the coast of Maine in the early 20th century, re-told from the perspective of a fictional minister's son.

Turner Buckminster is far from thrilled by his family's move from Boston to the small town of Phippsburg, Maine. He is singled out for persecution by the boys of the town and closely watched by the adults because his father is the town's new minister. He fails dismally at the local variant of baseball, and runs afoul of a local widow through the shocking crime of kicking a rock against her fence. His punishment is having to read to, and play the organ for, the widow Mrs. Cobb every afternoon. Turner's father, in particular, has high expectations of his behavior and his education, and allows Turner very little scope for having fun.

Down by the ocean shore, however, Turner meets Lizzie Bright Griffin, a young black girl. Lizzie lives in a community of shanties built by former slaves on nearby Malaga Island. Turner likes Lizzie at first sight, much to his own surprise. He finds Lizzie and the other Malaga residents to be warm and welcoming, and to have things to teach him. Lizzie teaches Turner how to hit a baseball thrown high into the sky, for example, and how to dig clams. The young Tripp children teach him how to laugh. Turner feels like he's finally found a place of happiness in Phippsburg, though his happiness doesn't last long.

Most of the Phippsburg residents are shocked by Turner's friendship with Lizzie, "a Negro girl", and he is swiftly forbidden to visit her. He finds a way to spend time with Lizzie, for a while, through the surprising complicity of Mrs. Cobb. Turner and Lizzie's friendship is threatened, however, when the local elders decide that the Malaga Island residents will be a deterrent to their hopes of drawing tourism to Phippsburg. The community leaders decide to force the island residents to leave the area, and pressure Turner's father to agree with them. When Turner takes a stand to try to help Lizzie and her friends, disastrous consequences ensue, changing things for Turner, his family, and the community forever.

This is a disturbing story, with racism and self-interest vying against compassion and understanding. The Malaga Island situation doesn't have a particularly happy resolution. I think that kids reading this book today will be baffled by the outright malice of the Phippsburg community elders towards the former slave community. Parts of the story are unquestionably sad. And yet, Gary Schmidt manages to keep the book as a whole from being depressing. I think this is mostly due to the strong character of Turner. He's smart and curious, and with a clear view of right and wrong that remains unshaken despite external pressures. He gets support when he needs it from both expected and unexpected sources, as he learns "to look at the world head on". Ultimately, the story ends on a note of hope. I think that children and adults could learn a lot from reading this book, and will enjoy spending time with Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy.

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy was an honor book for both the Newbery and Printz awards in 2005. Gary D. Schmidt is a professor in the English department at Calvin College and lives on a farm in Alto, Michigan, with his wife and six children.

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.