Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1651
Turner Buckminster III is so unhappy with his family’s move from Boston to the small town of Phippsburg, Maine, that he wishes he could just “light out for the Territories” like Huckleberry Finn. Turner’s father, the Reverend Turner Buckminster II, has been called to minister at Phippsburg’s First Congregational Church, but young Turner finds the town quite inhospitable.
Willis Hurd, son of the head deacon, invites Turner to play softball. In Phippsburg, the ball is pitched in a ridiculously high, slow arc, whereas in Boston it is thrown straight and true. When Turner flails at Willis’s unorthodox offerings, he becomes the laughingstock of the town. Later the boys invite Turner to go swimming, but in Phippsburg this involves leaping off the granite cliffs lining the shore into the roiling sea forty feet below. When Turner balks, his humiliation is complete. Disconsolately skipping stones on the way home, Turner hits the picket fence of the formidable Mrs. Cobb, who complains to the Reverend. As a punishment, Turner is sentenced to go to the disagreeable woman’s house every day to read to her.
Lizzie Bright Griffin lives on the tiny island of Malaga, just off the coast of Phippsburg. The granddaughter of a preacher, Lizzie is joyful and at one with the natural world. All of the residents of Malaga are Negroes who rely on the sea for their sustenance. The distinguished gentlemen of Phippsburg, led by the dour Mr. Stonecrop, consider the island and its poor inhabitants to be a blight; they want to be rid of them to promote tourism in the area. The islanders have been notified that they must leave regardless of whether they have a place to go.
Turner first meets Lizzie Bright on the shore when he is trying to hit rocks with a piece of driftwood so he will be able to handle Willis’s pitches, should he ever play ball with him again. Although he has never met a Negro before, he takes to Lizzie immediately because she evinces the freedom of spirit he longs for but finds so elusive. Lizzie teaches Turner to hit the arching pitches thrown in Phippsburg. Later, she takes him to Malaga, where he meets her grandfather, Preacher Griffin. Turner feels at home in the “cold wildness” of the island. He meets the Griffins’ neighbors, the Tripp family, and spends a “glorious day” playing with all the little Tripp children.
When Turner returns home, the city leaders are at his house, conferring with the Reverend about his “duty to the town.” The men piously assert that the island residents are all drunkards and thieves who must be removed for their own safety. The Reverend hesitates to support them. Deacon Hurd, using information conveniently provided by Willis, forces Turner to admit he has been on the island with Lizzie. Mr. Stonecrop portrays Lizzie as a conniving “Negress” who will lead the innocent Turner to perdition. Regarding his wayward son with doubt, the Reverend reluctantly agrees to stand with the city leaders against the population of Malaga.
Turner is forbidden to ever go back to Malaga, but Lizzie comes to the mainland shore frequently to dig for clams, and Turner continues to see her. One day, while the two are climbing the granite cliffs, Lizzie falls and hits her head. Turner tries to get her home to her grandfather, but he has never rowed a boat before and struggles ineffectively to stay on course as Lizzie fights to remain conscious. The tide takes their dory into the open sea, where it drifts until nightfall. Then, in the most wondrous experience thus far in Turner’s life, whales surround the boat. One comes so close that Turner looks directly into its eye, but when he reaches out to touch it, the whale is gone. Lizzie says that the whales will only let him touch them when he understands what they are saying, but the sheer wonder of just having seen them brings Turner a sense of immense peace.
Turner and Lizzie are rescued when the Hurds reach them in a sloop and tow them to shore. At Phippsburg, a crowd is gathered. When Preacher Griffin takes Lizzie in his arms, the people stand back and are careful not to touch them. A short time later, Mr. Stonecrop comes to the Buckminster home, complaining that Lizzie has had to have stitches and that the doctor’s bill will go to the town. The Reverend says he will pay the bill, which Mr. Stonecrop thinks is only fitting because Turner has aroused the censure of “all of First Congregational” for having gone out on a dory with a Negro girl.
Turner is still irresistibly drawn to the shoreline. One Sabbath as he is headed there, Mrs. Cobb stops him and tells him to come in and play the organ for her. Resignedly, Turner complies; he is surprised to see that, as she listens, Mrs. Cobb actually looks happy. Throwing caution to the wind when he sees Lizzie again, Turner invites her to come listen the next time he plays for Mrs. Cobb. When Lizzie arrives, the old woman is so astonished that all she can do is exclaim, “A Negro girl in my very house!” Turner plays the organ with uncommon fervor; after a few songs, Mrs. Cobb begins to relax. Although she never speaks directly to Lizzie, when Turner promises he will return tomorrow, she says to him, “Tell your friend here that she can come too.” Lizzie comes every day after that, and eventually Mrs. Cobb leaves the back door open for her.
In September, Turner’s father begins his schooling at home. He gives him daily assignments from the Aeneid, which he learns to appreciate, and Barclay’s True Religion, which he does not. When, after several days, Turner finally gets a break from his rigorous schooling, he goes immediately to the shore and looks toward Malaga. He sees the Tripps leaving the island in a “forlorn” house built on a rickety raft. Weeks later, Mr. Stonecrop angrily produces a Portland newspaper article in which Mr. Tripp claims that he was forced to leave his home on Malaga by the people of Phippsburg. Mr. Stonecrop calls Mr. Tripp’s accusations “insolence” even though they are true, and he browbeats the Reverend into writing to the Governor of Maine on Phippsburg’s behalf. Later, the Reverend uncharacteristically allows Turner to put aside his assignments on orthodox religious theology and introduces him instead to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, a work that will surely be considered heresy by the likes of Deacon Hurd.
Lizzie has not been to Mrs. Cobb’s since the Tripps’ departure. Surprisingly, Mrs. Cobb urges Turner to go to Malaga to see if she is all right, in defiance of his father and the town. Turner finds that Lizzie’s grandfather is seriously ill but the sheriff has said that he and Lizzie must leave the island by the deadline anyway.
Turner, who has learned to hit Phippsburg pitching from Lizzie, plays in the town’s last game of the season. He wallops twelve of Willis’s pitches far into the outfield, foul. Having made it clear that he can hit a home run if he chooses to, Turner refuses to swing at the last pitch, striking out but winning Willis’s respect. In October, Lizzie begins coming again to Mrs. Cobb’s house to hear Turner play the organ. One day, Mrs. Cobb dies in their presence. To the utter consternation of Mr. Stonecrop and Deacon Hurd, she wills her house to Turner.
Lizzie’s grandfather dies. Knowing what Mrs. Cobb would have wanted him to do, Turner gives the house to Lizzie; Lizzie knows, however, that the people of Phippsburg will never let a Negro live among them. The sheriff goes to Malaga and forces the remaining residents, including Lizzie, off the island, committing them all to the asylum in Pownal. Turner and his father confront the sheriff up on the granite cliff, and the Reverend is pushed over the outcropping onto the rocks below. The sight of his father’s “moonlit eyes” as he falls is forever impressed on Turner’s consciousness.
The deacons vote to remove the Reverend from his position at First Congregational, and the Buckminsters move into Mrs. Cobb’s house, where the Reverend dies. Turner speaks up for his father at the funeral, and a few of the parishioners stand up with him. One of them takes Turner to Pownal, where he learns that Lizzie is dead.
Haunted by the memory of his father’s eyes, Turner senses that the Reverend understood something significant and that there is a connection between the message in his eyes and in the eye of the whale Turner once almost touched. Mr. Stonecrop’s shipyard fails, and the duplicitous scoundrel disappears, taking the investments of the citizens of Phippsburg with him. Deacon Hurd is “beset with financial woe” as a result; the Hurds are forced to sell all their possessions, and Turner and his mother kindly invite the family to stay with them until things get better. Turner and Willis Hurd hire on with a lobster boat together, having become great friends.
One day, when Turner is out on the dory alone, he encounters the whales again, and this time they get close enough for him to touch. In that instant, Turner understands the thing they know and that his father knew as well:
There is nothing in the world more beautiful...than two souls who look at each other straight on...and there is nothing more soul-saddening than when they are parted...everything in the world rejoices in the touch, and everything in the world laments in the losing.
The message speaks of the essence of love, of being human, and the oneness of all things in the universe.
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