The written word is powerful and made more so by time. And if that time was spent manning a lighthouse, and what you have written is eventually found by family, well, there’s no telling the impact it could have on a life lived then and lives being lived now.
On Porphyry Island in the Thunder Bay District of Ontario a turn of the century mystery unravels itself with the unlikely pairing of two women, brought together by the discovery of the log books of the island’s lighthouse keeper. Theirs is a story of nostalgia, loss, deception and the unwavering strength of love told in Jean Pendziwol’s exceptional new novel, The Light Keeper’s Daughters
Born and raised in Thunder Bay on Lake Superior, Pendziwol now makes her home in Ontario, Canada. An acclaimed children’s author, this is her first attempt at adult fiction and she has hit the mark in a wonderful story that exquisitely captures the lonely hours of a keeper and a mystery that unravels with each turn of the page.
Elizabeth Livingstone, an elderly, near blind woman living in a retirement home, passes her days thinking about the life she once had as a girl growing up a lightkeeper’s daughter. “I have taken to dreaming that I am young again, my hair the color of ravens, my eyes strong. In my dreams, I dance. I am back on the island of my youth, on the black volcanic beach of Porphyry, where the Lake licks the shore and the wind sets the sedge waving.”
Morgan Fletcher is a troubled teen moving from one foster home to another, carrying a violin case containing her beloved instrument and mysterious pencil sketches. “I lay the instrument beside me and pull out the papers that I found years ago, hidden beneath the lining of the case. They’re pencil crayon sketches of birds and insects, and they look so real they could fly off the page. And yet at the same time they’re like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I’ve studied them, drawn them, dreamed about them, and drawn them again, but I haven’t shown them to anyone. They’re mine. I like to look at them when I’m lonely.”
Elizabeth and Morgan meet when Morgan is sent back to the Boreal Retirement Home to make reparations to the fence she and her friends vandalized one evening with graffiti. When they meet, there is an immediate yet subtle recognition between the two. What could it be? Morgan is then caught in Elizabeth’s room admiring three drawings she found eerily familiar to her. Elizabeth comes to her aid by telling the attendant on duty that Morgan is there to read to her. And with that, the story unfolds.
A boat owned by Elizabeth’s older brother Charlie is found abandoned on the shore of Lake Superior, close to the small island of Porphyry. Inside the boat investigators find the journals, keeper logs, her father maintained while serving on the island. Unable to read them herself, Elizabeth relies on the eyes and voice of Morgan to read the journals to her. The journals become the integral link that both women will rely on to find and patch together their own missing life pieces, culminating in a bond of friendship, trust and dependence on each other revealed while finally solving a decades-old mystery.
In first person narratives, Elizabeth and Morgan tell their story in alternating chapters and Pendziwol proves she is a master at this approach, allowing each character her own unique voice, perspective and emotion of what they are each seeing and feeling to seep through. And the spot on descriptions of life on an island, manning a lighthouse and a family’s dependence on each other while doing it is a fascinating glimpse into a yesterday many of us living along the coast never fully appreciate.
The reader is given a seat right up front to witness life as a keeper and take their own personal look into the irony of two lives separated by 70 years, yet each life remaining so tightly connected to the other in mysterious and very subtle ways. This is a great read, with many twists and turns that will both surprise and delight. It is a solid first novel from this writer, and I very much look forward to seeing what is next on her horizon.
HarperCollins, 2017 Hardcover, $26.99