CM Magazine: Secrets of Sable Island.
________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 32. . . .April 20, 2018


Secrets of Sable Island.

Marcia Pierce Harding.
Halifax, NS: Nimbus, May 2018.
174 pp., trade pbk., $14.95.
ISBN 978-1-77108-608-0.

Grades 5-6 / Ages 10-11.

Review by Karen Rankin.

** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



Caleb opened his eyes to the inky depths of a starless night. He felt hard sand beneath him. Icy water swirled around him, dragging him back out to sea. He knew he must crawl away from the ocean, but his limbs refused to move. Waves lapped his legs, his chest, and then retreated. He could not escape the rising tide. Better to have drowned, he thought, than freeze to death on the beach.

Too weak to spit, he swallowed sand. Warm blood oozed from the gash in his forehead and trickled across his temple. The roar of breaking waves thundered in his head.

The ground vibrated, louder and louder. There was a chorus of whinnies on the howling wind. A shadowy shape jumped over him, then another and another. A hoof grazed his shoulder. One horse stood over him for a long time, nickering, pawing the sand. Getting no response from the boy, the horse rooted under Caleb’s chest, rolling him onto his back.

Horse breath, warm and sweet-smelling, melted the snow on Caleb’s lashes. He forced his eyes open. Icicles, dangling from the horse’s long mane, brushed against his cheek.

The night was so black, all he could see was the white mark on the horse’s dark forehead. The animal’s presence gave Caleb a measure of comfort. He didn’t want to die alone. He lay there, feeling himself drifting, fading…

The horse bugled a piercing whinny then galloped away. Then darkness.


Caleb, 14, is an orphan trying to earn a living in 1904 when he’s swept off an Atlantic fishing boat during a storm and then washed up, unconscious, on Sable Island. A wild horse leads a man named Norse to him. Caleb has a broken leg and a ‘suspected’ concussion. Norse, who used to live on the small island of sand, has just recently returned to it after an absence of 14 years. Norse nurses Caleb back to health, but tells him that although one other person – Stone, a 65-year old man crippled with arthritis who tends the East Lighthouse – knows he has returned to the island, both his and Caleb’s presence must remain a secret. When Caleb is no longer house bound, he ventures out and discovers the island’s herd of wild horses as well as a girl his own age named Marin. Caleb doesn’t manage to keep his presence a secret from Marin for long, but she can be trusted and he doesn’t betray Norse. Marin lives on the island with her lovely but ill mother and cruel father, Rodney. Marin and her mother love the island while her father – who has only one leg and is responsible for tending the West Lighthouse – wants to put his daughter in a convent school on the mainland, sell her beloved horse to a coal-miner, and get his wife into a mainland hospital whether she wants to go or not. Marin’s mother is on the verge of dying as well as disclosing important information to Marin; however, Mother is always forced to postpone her revelations because of Rodney’s unexpected interruptions.

      Caleb quickly comes to love the island, the horses, and his two new friends. About four months after washing up on the beach and the day before the arrival of the supply ship which is supposed to take him to the mainland, Caleb tells Norse about Marin and learns that Norse is, in fact, her biological father – but this must be kept secret. Caleb’s not happy about this or the fact that it’s time for him to leave. Fate, however, has changed the normal course of events on Sable Island, and on the evening before the ship’s scheduled departure, a number of the wild horses, including the one that first found Caleb, end up in dire trouble. Marin and Caleb happen to team up, overpower Rodney and another offensive man, and rescue the horses. Caleb and Marin then ride to Marin’s mother and find her with Norse. All secrets are finally revealed, with the result that Marin need no longer worry about being sent away, her mother may actually recover, and cruel Rodney decides to return to the mainland and a childhood ‘sweetheart’. That same evening, Norse sends Caleb to tell Stone (the East Lighthouse keeper) what’s going on. During the few hours Caleb spends with Stone, he proves his worth and accepts a job offer as assistant lighthouse keeper. Caleb can stay on Sable Island.

      After Caleb is swept overboard in the first four pages of this historical fiction title, the novel moves at a fairly slow pace while his broken leg mends. Just over halfway through the book, he is able to get out and meet Marin and the horses, and the novel’s pace picks up. Caleb and Marin like each other immediately and manage to get together for at least some time during each of the four days left before Caleb’s ride back to the mainland will leave. The same evening after Marin and Caleb’s exciting rescue of the wild horses, Caleb also swims out into the Atlantic Ocean and – with the help of a 17-year-old Newfoundland retriever – rescues two stranded fishermen.

      While Caleb heals, amongst other things, Norse gets him reading Moby Dick, teaches him how to carve on whales’ teeth, and tells him stories. Norse is an interesting, though virtually flawless hero, and readers eventually learn that one hasty decision of his proved to be a fairly costly mistake. Both Marin and recently orphaned Caleb have mood swings that may be normal, given their circumstances, but are difficult to follow. Caleb, however, does regain a sense of home, family, and hope in the few months he spends on Sable Island. Although Marin’s mother says her ‘father’ was decent before he lost his leg, Rodney is one-dimensional. Marin’s brother, Bryce, is barely sketched and seemingly appears near the end of the story to maintain the plot. Stone, the arthritic lighthouse keeper, also feels as though he’s there just for plot support.

      While there are some interesting and exciting moments, Secrets of Sable Island would have benefitted from more substantive editing, given its convoluted plot, erratic pacing, and limited character development. To help readers, there’s a map of the island at the beginning of the story and a glossary at the end. Twenty-six short (approximately six-page) chapters also help young readers feel they’re making progress.

Recommended with Reservations.

Karen Rankin is a Toronto, ON, teacher and writer of children’s stories.

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