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The Bookmonger: ‘Scar Island’ an intense, involving book for ’tweens

For the Bellingham Herald

Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart

Wenatchee author Dan Gemeinhart presents life as a tough row to hoe in his middle-grade novels. His debut novel, “The Honest Truth” was about a sick boy named Mark, his dog, his best friend and a difficult journey. “Life sucks,” Mark says, “that’s the truth.”

Gemeinhart’s second book, “Some Kind of Courage,” was an historical Western about an orphan who embarks on a quest to reclaim his stolen pony.

But in his new book, Gemeinhart abandons the literary device of using a physical journey to develop the protagonist’s life outlook. Instead, in “Scar Island,” he locks his main character up.

For reasons he keeps to himself, 12-year-old Jonathan Grisby has confessed to a criminal act that had terrible consequences. As a result, in Chapter One he is traveling, handcuffed, on a boat to Slabhenge, “a hulking, jagged building of gray stone, surrounded on all sides by the foaming sea.”

Originally a lighthouse, and later expanded to become an insane asylum, the bleak facility now is run as a reformatory for troubled boys. It is overseen by a sadistic Admiral whose methods of “reform” involve depriving and even torturing his young charges. Jonathan is thrown into a barren cell to reflect on his misdeeds.

But within 24 hours, the Admiral and his lackeys are felled by a freak accident, and the young inmates find themselves on a rock in the middle of the ocean with no adult supervision whatsoever.

The dynamics swiftly reconfigure and a new hierarchy among the boys emerges – this one scarcely less brutal than the one it succeeded, although now they are allowed more freedom to roam.

Most of the boys, having had their imaginations subdued by the treatment they’ve endured since arriving at the island, are content to remain in their familiar surroundings and feast on the food they had been denied.

Jonathan, however, sets out to explore, and his reconnoitering through the dank passageways of the crumbling facility turns up vermin, frightening relics and a long-forgotten library.

Using other castaway classics – “Robinson Crusoe,” “Treasure Island,” and “Lord of the Flies” – to inform his story, Gemeinhart maroons his young characters on this sea-bound rock to explore ideas about society, leadership, value systems and the treatment of outliers.

“Scar Island” examines what can happen when individuals abdicate personal responsibility or compassion in favor of “going along.” There is no emotional sugar-coating here.

However, Gemeinhart does unleash a torrent of juicy adjectives to describe the grim setting of Slabhenge.

He also has the adult jailers speak with something akin to piratical flourishes, while the boys seem to be a thoroughly 21st century American mix of ethnicities.

Ultimately, this gripping tale of danger and survival contains echoes of John Donne’s 17th-century observation – as perceptive now as it was then – that “no man is an island.” Only when the boys figure that out does redemption become a possibility.

Young readers – especially boys and the reluctant readers among them – will likely relish this rule-breaking book.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

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