________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 2 . . . . September 16, 2016


Last Chance Island.

Norma Charles.
Vancouver, BC: Ronsdale Press, 2016.
226 pp., trade pbk., e-book & pdf, $11.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-55380-458-1 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55380-459-8 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-55380-460-4 (pdf).

Grades 5-7 / Ages 10-12.

Review by Rebecca King.

**½ /4



"Now, Aisha. Give me your hand."

He tried to haul her up beside him. But he lost his footing and tumbled down into the foaming waves, taking her with him. She squealed.

"So sorry." He lifted her out of the water. Now they were both soaked and so was the girl's jacket.

Aisha whimpered, trembling hard. She was wet and cold and the icy waves were licking at her toes.

"I'll try pushing you up," Kalu said. "Maybe that would work better. But we'll have to hurry because the waves are getting bigger."

Aisha took in a deep breath to try to stop trembling so much. Then she strained with all her strength to scramble up the rocky cliff. Kalu pushed her up as far as he could reach. Then he climbed a foot or so up the rock and pushed her a bit higher.

"See that clump of ferns up there? Can you reach them? Good. Now pull yourself up beside them."

Aisha wound her fingers around the ferns' roots and clung to them. She crouched there, trembling even harder now, with cold and with fear.

Meanwhile, Kalu was standing below in water rising up to his ankles. It was so cold his feet throbbed with pain. He kept moving them up and down so they wouldn't freeze. He hummed a song to keep the rhythm of his marching feet.

Last Chance Island is a story told as two intertwined narratives in alternating chapters. The first narrative uses a third-person narrator whose point of view is that of Kalu, a 13-year-old African boy; the second is a first-person narrative told by Spike, a 15-year-old Canadian girl.

      Kalu and his younger cousin Aisha are the sole survivors of an attack by rebels on their village. Kalu was in the outhouse practicing his flute, and Aisha hid under her teacher's desk as he was shot and killed. With the village burning, the two head to the next village to seek shelter with an uncle. Their uncle is away, and their aunt allows them one night's shelter before sending them on to the coast to seek work as she can barely feed her own family. In desperation, Kalu takes a job with the captain of the Irish Queen, a dishonest man who is more of a smuggler of rum and drugs than a fisherman. Kalu has had Aisha sneak into the hold of the boat, and, when she is revealed, she becomes the cook. Mister Elliott treats the two children kindly, teaching them about the boat and how to open cans of food, something outside of their village experience. As they travel north, he provides them some scraps of warmer clothing, but, when he hears by radio that the coast guard is looking for "illegal migrants", he drops them off on a small island off the coast of Ireland, promising to come back for them when he can.

      Meanwhile Spike, officially Lily Spiekeford, has been woken early in her school dormitory by Miss Jacob, the dorm supervisor, and sent to Mother Superior. Spike suspects that she has been caught for cutting the wires of the 6 a.m. rising bell. Sadly, she is instead informed that her father has died suddenly of a heart attack and that she is to be sent home at once. Her father's lawyer meets her at the train station and takes her to the house shared by her father and Felicity McPhee, her father's partner for the last several years. ‘Feefee' and Spike have never gotten along, and, as Spike walks into her father's study, Feefee is in the process of arranging for Spike to be taken in by Maureen Calhoun, Spike's mother's cousin, who is the lighthouse keeper on an island off the coast of Ireland.

      Norma Charles has created an absorbing, fast-paced double narrative. Though I could anticipate the sequence of many of the story's events (my immediate anticipation that both narrators would end up on the same island was, of course, correct), this did not significantly diminish my interest in finding out how the story played out. The narrative tension is strong throughout, and the characters are likeable.

      When evaluating a book, two questions are often asked: "Is the book free of stereotypes?" and "If there are stereotypes, are they intrinsic to the plot?" In this book, the answer is yes there are stereotypes. and they are not intrinsic to the plot.

      One of the most obvious stereotypes is the wicked stepmother, Feefee. She has no sympathy for the orphaned Spike/Lily and wastes no time in making arrangements to ship her off to a distant cousin. One might allow her points for being grief-stricken, herself, but she has never had any use for Spike/Lily, has never considered Spike's tastes or interests, and ruthlessly manipulates Maureen Calhoun into accepting Spike, claiming that the only other option is an unsuitable elderly uncle. To be fair, Feefee doesn't steal Spike's inheritance, as is explained in the last few pages of Spike's narrative.

      Mister Elliott, the captain of the Irish Queen, is presented as a caricature. Though he doesn't pull out a gun, he intimidates the workers on the dock who recognize him as a bad man. He refuses to pay them before the cargo is loaded and then, after the cargo is loaded, takes his boat away from the dock without paying for the goods. After asking Kalu if he ever worked on a boat before, he says, "Well, Kalu. This is going to be a mighty fine learning experience for you. How about starting by rustling us up some grub." (In these words, I hear John Wayne in a cowboy hat.) Mister Elliot's actions toward the children are kind until they are inconvenient. He drops them on the island, promising to pick them up soon, but he never returns.

      Maureen Calhoun, Spike's mother's cousin, does not have enough time in the narrative to develop fully. She is a woman who has lost friends, her baby, and her husband. She works hard keeping the lighthouse and feels strongly that it is important for a lighthouse to have a live keeper instead of an automated one. She generously accepts Spike into her home despite her misgivings about the suitability of the isolation of her location for a teenage girl. She also welcomes Kalu and Aisha when they are discovered, though she makes sure all government paperwork is completed. She is kind and affectionate but will maintain discipline.

      Other characters appear so briefly they can only be sketched in. Spike's father's lawyer is a single man with little knowledge of how to handle a teenage girl. The group of Irish street musicians and dancers are freewheeling and welcoming, living in a squat - a lifestyle that appeals to Spike at the moment. The boatman who takes Spike to the island hints of stories about her mother's childhood.

      Spike and Kalu are our main characters. How do they fare as fully developed characters? Spike is presented as slightly rebellious. She has cut the wire to the school dormitory wake-up bell, but she is basically happy with her friends there. As she packs her things, it is mentioned that she has a "Popular Mechanics" book of how things work, a book which she finds interesting and is taking with her. She loves to dance as an outlet for her emotions. Readers gradually learn that, though she thinks of herself as being close to her father, he hasn't had a lot of time to do things with her when she is home. She has been out on his power boat and has driven it, though he didn't know as she snuck the boat out. She has no desire to be confined to an island and plans to run away as soon as possible. She finds the workings of the lighthouse interesting and is able to restore the generator to working order at a critical moment. Her desire to leave only changes as she rescues Kalu and Aisha. Though interesting details were provided for Spike's character, they failed to produce a coherent whole for me as a reader.

      Kalu survives several traumatic experiences. He is kind and caring to his cousin Aisha. He is hardworking and intelligent, able to communicate well in English. He is musical, holding onto his flute throughout his escape. He has a spiritual side, as he plays a tune to the setting sun each day. He is brave and determined. I found him a sympathetic character, though not as compelling as, say, Jacob Deng in A Hare in the Elephant's Trunk by Jan Coates.

      While Norma Charles has given readers a suspenseful story with admirable tension, her characters are not sufficiently well-defined. If the objective is to get Spike to the island, the stereotype of the wicked stepmother could have been replaced by a line in her father's will sending her to an unknown relative. The boat captain, who brings Kalu and Aisha to the island, could have been less colourful and more realistic. Perhaps a less experienced reader would not find these flaws as disturbing; however, if I were down to the last dollars in my library budget, I would want the book I spent them on to be better than this one.


Rebecca King, a former Library Support Specialist with the Halifax Regional School Board in Halifax, NS, retired with 25 years of service.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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