One of my brother’s teachers has, over many years as an educator and bibliophile, amassed an impressive personal collection of children’s literature, particularly minor or out of print books. When she began teaching at the school she donated the entire set; it now lines the walls of the main meeting room.
The other day, there by happenstance, I decided to read them all. Or at least as many as I could, winding from bottom to top, left to right.
The first book I pulled off the shelves was a brightly colored hard-back called Lands End, by Mary Stolz.
It’s the story of a boy who loves the Florida coast and finds family life challenging. First published in 1971, it is part of what seems a distinct late-sixties-early-seventies niche chronicling the inner growth of young WASPs-in-training pulling away from their WASP families. E.L. Konigsburg published possibly the best iteration of the sub-type in 1967, From the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
Judging Lands End by its cover, as one should, I almost thought it was one of the books Moonrise Kingdom’s Suzy packs in her suitcase.
But not quite. Suzy’s taste is much more fantastical, and if anything, Moonrise Kingdom itself is Lands End and its genre’s counterpart: troubled WASP youths engaging in rebellion and gentle self-discovery against a similarly WASPy background of summer wind, water, sailboats.
All the assembled elements point towards success–an alienated boy, a ramshackle eight-person family of cheerful chaotics that moves in next door, and most of all, the constant presence of the coast’s bird and sea liife. The only real animating force behind Nature Girl was Carl Hiaasen’s lush bayou Florida, and Stolz almost manages a similar feat. Gulls, egrets, and cormorants fly off the page.
But cormorants can only do so much, and the novel never really musters around them in any coherent way. Joshua, the hero, is self-involved and prickly, frustrated and frustrating. Twelve to adulthood can be a very difficult time, but the fact that Joshua must endure the indignities of those years does not oblige us to soldier through beside him, and neither he nor the book presents any compelling reason why we should. His father, and to a lesser extent his mother, is self-possessed and rebuking, a good and reasonable parent when not delivering a detached, lacerating spate of corrections. Watching father and son go at it, round after round, is exhausting.
There’s little payoff, either. The dialogue feels stiff and unreal, which may just be a function of different times and the idioms of each. The plot, equipped with no similar excuse, never gains momentum or direction, and most of the relationships and emotional developments remain sketched and insubstantial.
Stolz, a Newberry honoree, is both prolific and highly recommended. I wouldn’t pass Lands End on to anyone else, but there’s enough–just barely enough–charm in its descriptions of boating and clamming to merit the author another chance.
I’d be interested, for instance, to see what she did with Pangur Ban.