This heartbreaking work of historical fiction tells the story of a true and tragic history from Maine’s past. Set in 1912, the book charts the friendship between Turner Buckminster and Lizzie Bright Griffin. Turner has just moved to Phippsburg, Maine, from Boston. Lizzie is from Malaga Island, a community founded by formerly enslaved persons just across the water from Phippsburg. The friends discover that the residents of Phippsburg intend to force Lizzie’s community off the island, and Lizzie and Turner try to help save the homes of the Malaga Island residents.
Author Gary D. Schmidt will join us via Skype to discuss his book with us on Sunday. In the meantime, we had a chance to start the conversation with him and wanted to share with you!
What initially drew you to the story of Malaga Island, and how did you come across this history in the first place?
I came across this story accidentally, really. My wife’s family has a farm in Maine in a town just south of Bath and Harpswell, and I once bought a guide book to use while we were visiting. That book had a very brief paragraph about Malaga Island, and though my kids were not interested, I decided to investigate further. The more I found, the more I recognized this as a very American story in which larger, more powerful communities exert power over smaller, less powerful ones. Every state has a story like this, and it seemed to me that I could tell this one to represent this kind of abuse of power.
Which sources and stories did you find most useful in conducting research for this book?
The most useful source was a newspaper from the period that gave running accounts of the progress in de-populating the island. It was shameless, arguing that the island needed to be cleared for the economic good of the town.
Are any of your characters based on actual people?
Lizzie is based on a photograph done by a photographer who went to the island to take pictures and to use those to assert that the people who lived there—African Americans and Irish Americans—were unfit and needed to be cared for institutionally. This photograph shows a young girl standing by a picket fence, utterly defiant. I aged her a bit for Lizzie, whose name came from the census rolls. I suppose Turner is pretty close to me—or at least, pretty close to how I hope I would have acted in this period.
What is something you hope your young readers will take away with them after reading your book?
Well, first off, a writer wants to tell a good story. Everything begins with that. So I’d want readers to feel that they were almost compelled to turn the page, as E. M. Forster asserts. Second, I’d hope that readers are sensitized to the fact that we are still doing this in our country—still abusing powerless communities of all stripes.
To learn more about and see images of Malaga Island, we recommend the Atlas Obscura piece, “The Dark Secrets of This Now-Empty Island in Maine.”