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,...
(The entire section is 1,651 words.)