Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy: A Review

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt (Yearling cover)Turner Buckminster has lived in Phippsburg, Maine for almost six whole hours. He has dipped his hands in its waves, smelled the sharp scent of its pine trees. He has looked out at the sea. Turner has even seen the clapboard parsonage beside the church his father will minister now that they are no longer in Boston and the small house beyond whose function he could not yet fathom (and soon enough would not believe).

Six whole hours in Maine.

He didn’t know how much longer he could stand it.

After a dismal arrival, a disastrous baseball game and one too many reminders that he is, in fact, a minister’s son, Turner is just about ready to light out for the territories. Surely, life out west would be better. It would certainly be simpler with no need to remember his manners and always wear those darned starched white shirts that simply do not work in the summer heat.

At least Turner has the sea breeze to keep him company. Being a sneaky, playful breeze it soon leads Turner to Malaga Island and his first friend in Maine.

Lizzie Bright Griffin is Turner’s opposite in almost every way. She has lived on Malaga all her life, just like her parents and her granddaddy. A community founded by former slaves, Malaga is a poor island and largely seen as a blemish on the landscape by Phippsburg’s elite. But to Lizzie it is the most wonderful place in the world. It is home.

Turner and Lizzie have every reason to hate each other. Instead they become fast friends. Soon enough Turner can’t imagine his life without knowing Lizzie or Malaga. Meanwhile, change is coming. Phippsburg is plotting to force the islander’s off Malaga to pave the way for a lucrative tourist industry that will lead Phippsburg into the future.

The change seems inevitable. Still Turner feels he and Lizzie have to try and fight this horrible injustice. Only time will tell if it will be enough to save Malaga in Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (2004) by Gary D. Schmidt.

Find it on Bookshop.

This story is based on the real life destruction of Malaga island in 1912 and (spoiler alert, insofar as a real event can be considered a spoiler) the island is not saved. Schmidt has created a stunning novel about a real story that is shocking but also needs to be told and remembered.

The writing here is charming and surprisingly appealing given the narrow focus of the narrative. Biblical references Turner acquired from his minister’s-son-upbringing are interwoven seamlessly in a way that works even if the source behind the references is not always clear to readers with a different knowledge set.

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy is also the only book I know of that is both a Newbery and Printz award honor book (both honors received in 2005). This never happens. It’s kind of as amazing as Sandra Bullock’s recent awards sweep winning the Golden Globe for best actress in a comedy and a drama and winning the Oscar for best actress besides. It’s just really rare and a real sign of overall awesomeness for a book written for young people.

Despite a very clearly defined plot (as is the way when a story is based on real events), this book is not easy to make sense of just based on a blurb or the cover, more on those in a minute. That’s because Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy is a very subtle, smart book. It really needs to be read before you can fully appreciate its magic. Phippsburg and its inhabitants are fully realized as characters. Even the sea breeze has its own special place as a character of sorts moving the story along.

Some historical novels relate detailed accounts of real events. Schmidt does that to an extent here, but even better is the full immersion of this story. You don’t read this one, you live it. A detailed author’s note at the end of the book also details the real story that inspired this fictional one.

Now a bit more about those covers. As far as I can tell, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy has three covers. The middle one here, the one with the primitive style artwork, was the original 2004 cover. In 2006 Yearling repackaged the book as a paperback with the top cover, the one split in half between Lizzie/Turner in the boat, and the whale. Finally in 2008 the book was reprinted again (I believe by Powell) as a mass market paperback which can be seen in the last image here, the smallest one that is predominantly yellow hued in the background.

I might be wrong here, but my suspicion is that the book was repackaged to try and make it more appealing to young readers since its 2005 honors already made it clear that the book had literary appeal. Personally, my favorite is the Yearling cover (the top one here) because it’s exactly how I pictured Turner and Lizzie in my own imagination. I can see the skill in the original cover’s artwork and how it fits with the story. On the other hand, it seems very off-putting to a young person looking for a book (again this could be me, but my colleague “Lynn” agreed with me)–I know it was off-putting for me before I got into the story. Whatever cover you prefer, this book is definitely well worth reading.

Possible Pairings: Lucky Strikes by Louis Bayard, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin, Someone to Run With by David Grossman, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose, Holes by Louis Sachar, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, The Aeneid by Virgil, Generation Dead by Daniel Waters, Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein