You can’t beat a local story by a local author and this novel excels in all departments. I literally could not put this book down as it drew me into the story of the lighthouse keeper on Porphyry Island and his two daughters Elizabeth and Emily. It is not possible to say much about the plot without giving away too many spoilers, but suffice it to say that there are enough twists and turns to keep you fully engaged right up to the last page.
The story is also told by another key character, Morgan, whose urban life in Thunder Bay is intimately connected (but unknown to her) with the light keepers daughters. I have noted that while English literature is shaped by history, Canadian literature is dominated by the natural environment, and the point is well proven in this novel. The real star of the show is the landscape, dominated by Porphyry Island, which is almost magical in its appeal. Silver Islet, the Sleeping Giant and Lake Superior also feature strongly.
Jean E. Pendziwol pulls you into her compelling narrative which contrasts the slow pace of an idyllic life growing up on Porphyry Island, to the fast pace and perils of modern city life. Porphyry was the second lighthouse constructed on the Canadian side of Lake Superior, and first lit the waters near Black Bay in 1873. Andrew Dick, the keeper on Porphyry Island from 1880 to 1910, left behind several personal journals that recorded his time at the light with his Indigenous wife Caroline and their ten children. These journals were the inspiration for The Lightkeeper’s Daughters which is a testament to the Canadian men and women who served as Great Lakes lighthouse keepers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
John Pateman is CEO/Chief Librarian at the Thunder Bay Public Library.
This is, undoubtedly, almost a really good book. I think the main clincher for me was that it’s set in the old country – Australia – so everything was familiar: the places I’d lived in and visited, the wildlife, culture, and, of course, the language. You really can’t beat Aussie vernacular for getting straight to the point and making things entertaining in the process. “Chuck a wobbly” is one of my favourites, and it’s nice to be able to say so-called naughty words like “bloody” and “buggered” and not be told off for swearing. These are not considered swear words Down Under.
But getting back to the book: this is Stedman’s first novel, and at its center is a child and the moral dilemma that surrounds her. Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia after serving four harrowing years in the First World War. He takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, an isolated island off the coast of Western Australia, where supplies are delivered only four times a year. He takes with him his young wife, Isabel, the daughter of the school headmaster at Portageuse, the mainland town that services the lighthouse. After two miscarriages and a still born baby, Isabel grieves for a child she fears she may never have. When a rowing boat becomes stranded on the Janus shoreline with a dead man and a crying baby inside, Isabel senses an opportunity.
Despite Tom’s strong protestations, Isabel convinces him that they should bury the dead man and keep the child. She has only just lost the third baby, and as nobody knows that it was still born, they could easily pass the child off as their own. They name her Lucy, and she becomes their daughter. Tom struggles daily with the crime, wishing to tell the authorities on one hand, but in love with the child on the other. When they discover that Lucy’s birth mother, Hannah, is alive and grieving for her child and husband, the struggle becomes even more difficult.
As the reader, we see all sides of the story and want things to work out for everyone. Tom is a good, honest man. Isabel is a desperate mother. Hannah mourns for her child and husband. The child is caught in between.