As I continue my journey to learn about the author Cynthia Rylant it is becoming apparent to me that she has a remarkable gift. A gift to be able to write for any audience that is kid friendly with adult themes. The Islander by Rylant reminded me of the Newberry winning novel, Missing May. They both deal with the loss of a loved one and the spiritual connection that a person grieving would rely upon to help them cope with the loss. Although, Missing May was grounded in realistic events, The Islander ventures into fantasy.
The narrative is told through Daniel as an adult as he revisits his youth. His voice portrays his loneliness and sadness as he loses both his parents in a plane crash at the age of seven. He is living with his grandfather on an island called Coquille off the coast of British Colombia. He feels lost as he is longing for something…. Wanting to connect with someone or something outside of himself. “I wanted to know what I was missing. What was happening in the world without me?”
As he sits by the sea one evening, in the light of the full moon, he sees a mermaid. When he shares this experience with his grandfather he finds himself even more isolated. “I knew my grandfather believed I was not well, and that the loss of my parents and the loneliness of living with him made me so.”
Daniel continues to have extraordinary experiences with an otter, a key, and a box with a puppy. Rylant suggests that because Daniel is so numb from the loss of his parents that he is open to these symbolic events. Over time, the key and the puppy gradually heal his broken heart. He is no longer longing for that something or someone. He is content with who he is and his connection to his family and the island.
The story is a quick and easy read. I think the format would be engaging to a reluctant reader. The text does not fill the whole page and the language is simple yet consistent with her style. “He began to answer me when all at once the wind roared against his voice and over everything above us, and we could hear all manner of destruction – objects thudding against the house, the long loud moan of hundred-year-old rafters, the small kitchen above us shaking, and the clatter of pans and bowls knocking on the floor.”
I would consider this book low fantasy with the mermaid and the magic key. It engages the reader by grounding us in Daniel’s reality of loss and his journey over time to find peace and happiness with himself after losing his parents and grandfather. Cynthia Rylant blends reality with fantasy. We are touched by Daniel’s loss, we fear for his ability to grieve and we remain hopeful that he is able to heal and move forward with a happy productive life.