Tuesday, June 27, 2017
Read online about why Laurel Snyder wrote ORPHAN ISLAND and you will discover that the novel is a bit of a passion project for the author. She felt like she had been writing novels for others, with the goal of entertaining, and had lost a bit of the childlike passion that comes with the craft. I can respect that. I think it's awesome that Snyder is at a point as an author where she can write something for herself.
The problem with criticizing someone's passion project is that Ms. Snyder doesn't care what I have to say about the book. Her fans probably don't either. She didn't write this book to entertain me, she wrote this book for herself. As I said, whether I enjoyed the novel or not, I can respect that. Many fans of Snyder and reviewers online have enjoyed this, so take my thoughts for what they are. My thoughts.
The hype surrounding this novel was pretty high. It got a lot of crazy love on Goodreads as advanced copies made their way into the hands of fans of children's literature and librarians. When it finally hit bookstore shelves weeks ago, it felt like anyone who is anyone had already read this and declared it a masterpiece.
In ORPHAN ISLAND, nine children live on an island. Once a year, a mysterious green boat arrives with a young child, snot faced and dripping wet. The oldest child on the island, the Elder, must then trade places with the new child and get inside the boat while the boat takes the child away from the island into the mist, never to be seen or heard from again. It's kind of like Survivor, meets Lost, meets The Truman Show, meets Cast Away, meets Jerry Spinelli's HOKEY POKEY.
The setup of the novel is really well done and highly intriguing. "Nine on an island, orphans all. Any more, the sky might fall." Chapter 1 is gripping. There is emotional tension as Deen climbs in the boat and argues with Jinny. Immediately, readers are hooked, wondering what is going on. Where does the boat come from? Where is Deen going? Why are the others staying? How long have they been here? Who else has been here? Sadly, while a few of those questions are answered, the big ones are avoided altogether. Snyder has not written a plot-driven book, but a character study about the blurring of lines between childhood and adolescence.
It's fairly obvious that ORPHAN ISLAND is meant to be absorbed as a metaphor. Jinny, the main character, asks a lot of questions about life. That's actually pretty much the plot of the story. Over 200 pages of a child on a mysterious island asking questions about life. Furthermore, some of the questions are not questions that I felt like Jinny should have been naturally asking (that happens alot, and I'll talk more about it in a moment). I felt the author working really hard at reminding readers this was a metaphor. The approach was too in-your-face, too heavy handed. I would have appreciated a little more plot, with a more subtle approach to the metaphor.
The problem with viewing this story simply as a metaphor, is that it's an easy way out for an author. The details of the world you are attempting to build don't have to add up because a) you're not revealing them all and b) it's a metaphor! I read an online interview where Snyder admits to writing a prologue to the novel that details the creation of the island and after a friend read a draft of the story and then the prologue, she advised Snyder NOT to include the prologue. This friend probably supported Snyder's "metaphor" approach. There's also a chance that that prologue was a let down and didn't deliver the goods, ruining the story. So why risk including it when you can just fall back on "it was all a metaphor."
Here's an example: When the green boat returns for Jinny and she initially doesn't get inside, the empty boat kind of freaks out. It nudges into her and shakes in the water and wants someone to get inside to take them away. Is this magic? How does the boat operate? It seems to know that only 9 kids can remain... So in the end when Jinny finally climbs into the boat with the injured boy, the boat sails away into the mist! What the heck?!? So could the kids have all climbed into the boat in the beginning and just sailed away? Why does the boat leave with two? The thing is, by not answering these questions, Snyder is telling us it doesn't matter because it's all a metaphor for growing up. But that's lazy storytelling. There could be some serious loopholes in the world Snyder has developed and we'd never know.
It became obvious as I read, that we would not be getting answers to the numerous questions arising in the text about the island but I kept reading anyway in hopes that I could piece together enough of the snippets we did get to come to a conclusion myself. But no. Just a lot of questions that might not have legit answers. That's not masterful writing to me. That's sloppy writing. Snyder could have provided these answers and still done so without catering to audiences.
But enough about the ending, because to me, the shortfalls of this book are about so much more than just the open ended final page of the book. Jinny is the only real character that is given any depth and she's annoying. She's selfish and whiny and not near as endearing as I think she was intended to be. The other characters are pretty weak. Ess, the young girl who arrives on the island when Jinny's friend Deen leaves, becomes Jinny's responsibility to mentor and she too is rather annoying. She speaks like a frightened toddler throughout the book despite growing physically and becoming able to perform chores and tasks in her first year on the island.
The characters are too smart for their own good. As readers, we bare witness to two arrivals on the island and both children are very raw. Ess is whimpering, covered in snot, and can barely speak. She knows nothing (but mumbles "Mama"). The last boy to arrive (who I get the strong feeling is somehow related to Jinny, ironically) is similar to Ess, but mentally unhinged and hell-bent on damaging things. If they all arrive on the island this way, how to they learn anything? How do they become anything? The questions Jinny asks about life are questions a normal child would ask about life and growing up, not a girl stuck on an island, fighting each day to survive. Jinny behaves like a girl stuck on a really long vacation, not a girl who has spent years living on an island alone with a handful of other children.
It also bothered me that the children don't have to work really hard to survive. Things are comfy and routine on the island. They start fires, they prepare and cook food, they hunt and fish, they read bedtime stories together. How can they do all this? If they arrive on the island like Ess, how do they become like Jinny? The answer is probably the most problematic aspect of the book to me...
There is a library of books on the island (previously owned by some Annabelle) and the children read from these each night and credit most of their knowledge to what is contained in these books. This is highly problematic to me... How did these kids learn to read? Ess cannot read when she arrives. Neither can the other boy. It's revealed that hundreds of days pass between Deen leaving and the boat arriving for Jinny. And Jinny is the oldest of the nine. If you do the math, this means that Jinny has been on the island for anywhere from 5-9 years. Since she's at the start of her adolescent years, we can guesstimate her age at 12ish, which means the kids arrive on the island around the age of 7 or 8, or younger. And in a few short years, with only peers as mentors, they can read full novels and hunt and fish and prepare food?!? This is too contrived of a plot device for me and extremely lazy storytelling.
In the end, I found myself way more interested in the the mystery surrounding the island than in the characters inhabiting the island. The characters were nothing special to me. The island could have been but we'll never know. I think it's a copout to not provide some closure to the story after providing so much foreshadowing and so many clues to this story being about more than just a metaphor. I'm not sure a prologue (or even a prequel or sequel) could redeem this.
Ms. Snyder is a talented writer. There is sentence-level beauty in some of the passages here and I loved her previous works ANY WHICH WALL, BIGGER THAN A BREADBOX, and SWAN. After the hype this one seemed to gather, it just didn't work for me at all. I shouldn't say I wouldn't read a sequel (or prequel) but since she seems to have written this more for herself than for an audience, to pump out a second book to appease the masses seems highly unlikely so I won't hold my breath. I am really curious to see what child readers think of this.