Book Review: Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy

Rating: ★★★★☆

Turner Buckminster, the new minister’s son, has great trouble fitting into his new town, but he finds friendship with Lizzie, one of the despised former slaves “squatting” on a nearby island.  When the small shanty settlement is driven away to make room for tourism, Turner attempts to defend Lizzie, standing against overwhelming social pressure.  Throughout this story, the young people’s friendship is developed with subtlety, depth, and a mild romantic tension.  Lizzie is portrayed as a gentle, lively, and preturnaturally wise girl who clearly sees the social forces that are arrayed against her.  Turner is slower to catch on, and his grief at their forced parting is made sharper by surprise.

Some important themes in this story: Turner’s father is at first distant and very controlling, and the two of them eventually form a bond by reading Darwin together.  At one point Turner wonders if his father believes the religious ideas he is proclaiming, and the reader is clearly meant to understand that he does not.  His father’s hypocrisy is atoned for when at the climax of the story he reverses his conformist stance and opposes the settlement’s eviction at the risk of his own life.  One might interpret his dramatic reversal to show that social justice carries greater moral weight than the teachings of the Bible.

This underlying theme is made more clear in the denouement of the story, when Turner takes his boat out to sea and remembers Lizzie.  There he meets the whales that have been a symbol of transcendence and courage throughout the story — creatures he has never understood.  On encountering them now he comes to the conclusion that:

The world turns and the world spins, the tide runs in and the tide runs out, and there is nothing in the world more beautiful and more wonderful in all its evolved forms than two souls who look at each other straight on.  And there is nothing more woeful and soul-saddening than when they are parted.  Turner knew that everything in the world rejoices in the touch, and everything in the world laments in the losing.

One might interpret this to mean that the author believes the great goal of humanity is to forge connection with other people.  This is an important part of human experience, but does not reach as far as the Westminster Catechism’s teaching that man’s main purpose is “to know God and enjoy Him forever.”  I would suggest that this is a moral tale, not strictly a Christian one, although elements of it that will resonate with Christian sensibilities.

This is a sensitively written story about human experience, about courage in the face of evil, and about American small-town life, with an admirable protagonist who comes of age through learning some terribly hard lessons.  It does not shy away from the evil hidden in the hearts of humanity, and ultimately it is an inspiring story.  Its humanist perspective will require some discernment to engage, and I would recommend that parents read this book along with their kids.

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Publication Information: Schmidt, Gary D.. Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. Laurel Leaf. 2004. ISBN: 0375841695.
Categories: 4 Stars, Age 12-16, Newbery Honor
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Posted on January 4, 2012

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