Laurel Snyder’s “Orphan Island” (2017) is a beautifully written middle-grade novel with nuanced characters and an initially engaging plot: Nine unrelated children live without adult supervision, and in harmony, on a magical island.
Wind gusts are strong enough to float on, wildlife is never harmful, and food is abundant. Children spend their time collecting berries, learning to swim or read, and preparing meals. Evenings are spent with the eldest of the children reading stories. Life would seem idyllic.
Once a year, a mysterious, unpiloted green boat carrying a young child of 3 or 4 arrives on the island. The expectation, and the way it has always been done, is that the boat will leave this young child behind and, in exchange, will take the eldest of the group.
“Orphan Island” opens as the main character, Jinny, hears a bell announcing the arrival of that boat. Knowing it is her friend Deen’s turn to leave, Jinny races to the beach to beg him to stay.
Deen’s sense of duty is strong, and he ignores Jinny’s pleas. Instead, he gets in the boat, reminding Jinny that she is now the eldest and it will be her responsibility to take care of the small girl left in his place.
This small girl is Es, a clumsy, skinny, lisping child, now Jinny’s charge. The relationship between these girls propels the plot forward and gives the reader an understanding of life on the island.
There is so much to admire in “Orphan Island.” Even weeks after finishing the book, I can recall details about the wildlife, collecting honey and riding the wind gusts.
Additionally, the relationship between Es and Jinny has stayed with me. Jinny isn’t even a teenager, and she has taken over the role of Es’s mother.
That role carries a great deal of ambivalence, and Jinny vacillates between pride and annoyance with Es, and sometimes even jealousy when other children are better able to deal with Es.
Laurel Snyder is a gifted writer. She has a new book out, “My Jasper June,” which I will read, and, if suitable, will pass on to my 10-year-old granddaughter, or perhaps my 30-something daughter.
However, I won’t pass on “Orphan Island,” and I won’t recommend it. Not to middle-graders and not to adults because from my perspective, Snyder never finished the story.
I read this book eagerly, wanting to find out why the children had come to the island. Were they banished? Or had they gone willingly?
Es cries for Mama, but Jinny maintains mothers exist only in stories. There is the mysterious Abigail, who has written her name and comments in all the books left on the island. I wanted to know about her.
Snyder doesn’t deliver on any of these story threads.
I read an interview she gave on GoodReads, in which she maintained she intentionally left the book’s ending unresolved, so readers could come to their own conclusions.
“Orphan Island” is aimed at children between the ages of 8 and 12. Eight-year-olds don’t interpret books in that way.
Still, Snyder writes beautifully and creates memorable characters. I’m happy to have discovered a new author and will check out her other books.
I only wish this book had lived up to the promise of its opening chapters.
(Maureen Cooke has been writing, editing and teaching others to write for the past 30 years. Currently, she’s working on a mystery novel and a memoir. She’s a member of the Corrales Writers’ Group.)