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8 September 2002 THE LIGHTKEEPER'S DAUGHTER by Iain Lawrence, Delacorte Press, September 2002


" 'Gather round.' He always said 'Gather round' to start it off. Squid was six or seven.

"Hannah, Squid, and Alastair sat on the rocks as sharp as nails. 'This is the byssus,' said Murray, spreading with his fingers the cottony threads that held the mussel to its rock. 'It's spun by a gland in the animal's foot. He lashes himself in place like Ulysses to his mast.' "He turned the shell in his hand. It was a California mussel, nearly eight inches long. He pointed out the scars along the shell, like patches of white on its deep purple back. 'This fellow,' he said, 'has had some sort of an accident. He might have been wacked by a log.' The scars were deep, and Murray picked at the grooves with his nails. 'The poor brute almost bought it there. Must have got the fright of his life.'

" 'How old is he?' asked Alistair.

" 'Hard to say.' Murray bounced the mussel in his palm. 'He's an old-timer, all right. They grow like weeds in the beginning; more than three inches the first year. But then they slow down, and this one's lived on the island maybe as long as I have.' "


Imagine being Murray and Hannah's kid: growing up on an island, learning how to swim before you walk, working with your parents for a few hours in the morning, and then having the rest of the day for exploring, reading, playing, dreaming, and listening to your father rhapsodize about the mysteries of the plant and animal kingdoms around you. Hop into a glass-bottomed rowboat he's built, paddle out into the water as you observe the creatures below, and then stow the oars as whales breach and blow alongside you.

Hungry? Need a new book? Don't worry! Supply ships come by the island every month so that you've got plenty of food, fuel, supplies, clothes, and books to read.

There is a downside, however.

Throughout the years of growing up, the only human contact that you have outside of your parents and sibling are those monthly supply ships and the voices of the other lightkeepers over the radio system, reporting the weathers every few hours.


THE LIGHTKEEPER'S DAUGHTER is the story of Squid (Elizabeth) and Alistair growing up on remote Lizzie Island, off the coast of British Columbia. It is told looking back, four years after Alistair had drowned, when seventeen year-old Squid brings her three year-old daughter to the island for the first time. It is a mysterious and taut tale about what went so terribly wrong with their idyllic existence on the island.


" 'Humpbacks sing,' said Murray. 'Did you know that?'

"She shook her head.

" 'Each year one of them starts a song. Then others pick it up; they lengthen it and change it.' He spoke softly--he always did--looking out to sea and not at her. 'By the middle of summer they all know the song. They sing in a chorus over hundreds of miles.'

"She leaned her head against his shoulder. She could feel him breathing, and she tried to do what the whales were doing, and time her breath to his.

" 'No one knew,' said Murray. 'Until the war. Then someone put a microphone in the water, hoping to hear submarines. They heard this singing instead. And they didn't know what the hell it was.' "She pressed herself against him. She was shivering, but he didn't notice.

" 'I don't understand it,' he said.

" 'The song?' she asked.

"He shook his head. 'Och, we'll never understand that. I mean how men could kill them.'

" 'No,' she said.'

"He sighed. 'They're wonderful things, whales are. They're miraculous.' "


This is a story that is haunting and bittersweet, a setting that is utterly entrancing. Murray has no use for civilization--he hasn't been off of the island since leaving school and taking over from the last lightkeeper. Hannah washed up on the shore a couple of decades after Murray arrived. The kids soon followed. Bit by bit the two children and their mother reveal the secrets of their lives with Murray, a barnacle of a man who has a life or death grip on the island. My own head will remain cemented to Lizzie Island and these characters for some time to come.


Richie Partington




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