Published in 2004, Gary D. Schmidt’s Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy has received a number of recognitions and was named a Newbery Honor Book and an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults. Literary criticism is unanimous in praising the book for both its high artistry in writing and its perceptive handling of pertinent subject matter. Although this is a work of fiction, the story is based on a real incident that occurred in 1912 in Phippsburg, Maine, and on the tiny island of Malaga, which lies just off its shore.
The population of Malaga, which eked a meager living from the land and surrounding sea and numbered around fifty at that time, was made up of “freed or possibly escaped slave[s]” and others deemed unacceptable by the mainland community. By the time of the incident in question, they had lived on the island for well over a hundred years. When the shipping industry in Phippsburg began to fail, the town tried to promote tourism as an economic substitute but reasoned that potential visitors would be repelled by the squalid island community that existed in such close proximity to the shore. After much squabbling amongst Phippsburg, another nearby town, and the state of Maine, the residents of Malaga were ordered to leave the island. Those who did not comply were forcibly removed and committed to the Home for the Feeble Minded in Pownal, where they quickly died. Among those who died in the asylum was an unnamed young girl who might very well have been Lizzie Bright Griffin.
The austere but remarkable Maine coastline is brilliantly depicted in the book, creating a palpable tone and mood that have been described as “hauntingly sad.” Although some characters—notably the manipulative and cynical church leaders—are chillingly evil in their racist hypocrisy, others, in particular Turner Buckminster and his father the Reverend, are vibrant and dynamic creations, growing steadily in wisdom and stature as they respond to their environment with thoughtfulness and courage. The author’s writing is notable throughout, filled with stunning imagery and powerful symbolism, and the plot is intricately constructed; the events are recounted with an irony that is simultaneously wondrously humorous and deeply bitter. Although the book may not be an ideal choice for the reluctant reader because of its length and complexity, it is a valuable addition to the cannon of young adult historical fiction and literature both for its style and content. In Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, Schmidt brings alive a painful event in history that addresses issues relevant to the harsh economic realities of the present day and should not be forgotten.