The Light-Keepers Daughters by Jean E. Pendziwol
Jean E. Pendziwol is one of my favourite authors of Canadian Children’s picture books. She has written the text for, most notably, Me and You and the Red Canoe, and Once Upon a Northern Night.
I have eyed her novel The Light-Keeper’s Daughters for some time, and chose it for a long plane trip earlier this month. With a three-hour delay before a five-hour flight I had a lot of uninterrupted time to enjoy this book.
Set on the shores of Lake Superior, the story moves back and forth from the past century into the present time. Anyone who has driven through Northern Ontario and around the top of Lake Superior will recognize the majestic and spectacularly beautiful landscape. The light-keeper is Andrew Livingston, a Scottish immigrant; his wife Lil was born in Canada, her father Scottish, her mother Ojibwe. Daughters Elizabeth and Emily, twins, were born in the 1920s on Porphyry Island; and with two older boys the family was complete. They lived on the island all year round, the children learning how to help their parents with the light and foghorn, their father teaching them to read and write. Eventually the boys left for schooling but the girls remained at home. It was a severe climate but their lives were full of the wonders of the natural world and they were not unhappy.
This part of the story is revealed through the journals of the light-keeper, and by the memories of Elizabeth, now an elderly woman. Elizabeth has lived out of Canada for most of her adult life, but she has recently returned to Lake Superior and moved into a retirement home. Elizabeth is now blind, and when her father’s journals are discovered and put into her hands, she is unable to read them.
It is Morgan who reads them to her. Morgan is a teenager girl, recently caught painting graffiti on the fence at the retirement home, and now, as punishment, she is scraping and repainting the fence. Morgan is a teenager struggling to find her place in the world, edging into trouble, and currently living in foster care. She is angry and confused and, as it turns out, she is much more in need of Elizabeth’s attention than she could have imagined. This unlikely pair builds a relationship that begins with need and ends with true affection.
The passages from the light-keepers journals about daily life on the island paint a picture of a time long past. There are beautiful days picking wildflowers, herbs and edible wild plants, as well as the harvest of the gardens. There is fishing and trapping and hunting. There are also ships in distress, and some who founder.
As Elizabeth remembers her childhood she realizes that she knows things that have been hidden deep in her memory, and were not understood by the child she once was. There was a great deceit in this family that affected all of the children, and the generations to come. The complicated story and the truth of the past is slowly revealed as both Elizabeth and Morgan make discoveries, along with the reader of this satisfying novel.
Published just last year, The Light-Keepers Daughters has become a book club favourite, and has been published in many languages and read around the world.