There is something about an island that makes for a good adventure story. Three that come to mind are Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, and Ian Cameron’s The Island at the Top of the World. An island, by definition, is cut off; it is remote, separate and unknown. Such stories are often two adventures in one: the adventure of getting to the island, and then the adventure of what is on the island. (With perhaps a third – the adventure of getting home from the island – thrown in.)
Eilis Dillon’s The Lost Island fits this tradition. It is the story of fourteen-year-old Michael Farrell who works a farm with his mother on the west coast of Ireland. Four years before, Michael’s father Jim Farrell had left but Michael never knew why. One night, a stranger arrives seeking shelter. Being Irish, they let him stay, and as fortune would have it, the stranger tells them he is looking for the Farrell family because he has a message from their father! “Tell them that Jim Farrell is alive and that the boy must go and find him.” The stranger leaves the next morning, but now the mother must tell Michael the reason for his father’s disappearance: the father had left to find the lost island of Inishmanann, the home of Manann, the god of the sea where legend had it that there was treasure. By the way, one of the charms of this book is that, although set in the 1950s, it has that Irish timelessness about it so that you go right along with the legend without a blink.
Out to Sea
Being a farm boy, however, Michael has no knowledge of the sea, no boat, and no idea how to find the lost island. He confides in his friend Joe Clancy who, being the son of a fisherman, has plenty of experience on the sea. They go to Bartley Connolloy, “the oldest man I had ever seen, as old as a field,” and who knows all the old legends. Bartley encourages the boys and tells them the way to the island: “Sail south of north and north of south for seven days.”
A local boatbuilder Pat Conway, who has also heard of the island, gives the boys a boat for their voyage provided he gets a share of the profits and they take along Pat’s assistant, Matt. The boys sense that Conway and Matt are not as safe as they seem and plan to sail off secretly on their own, but the night before they sail Pat drugs them and they awake to find themselves at sea with a knife-wielding Matt in charge.
Adventures Any Boy Would Love
What follows is the adventure within the adventure of getting to the island. Michael and Joe must find a way to get Matt out of the way and go on their own which they decide to do as they reach the last island before the open sea. But it turns out Pat Conway has followed them there! Some villagers help, but their escape involves a cat-and-mouse chase across the island at night, with hiding in sheds and caves and a narrow slip from dishonest lighthouse men in cahoots with Pat Conway. One of the village boys who helps them, Mike Connolloy, comes along to help them find the island.
After some adventures at sea with storms and sharks, the three lads find the island and Michael’s father. And the treasure? Well, you’ll have to read the book to find that out. They have more adventures on the way back because Pat Conway is still waiting for them, but they do make it home safely and Michael’s family is reunited.
Here’s what I like about this book. Sometimes the best—and only—recommendation needed for a book is that it is a good story well told. The Lost Island is such. The story moves with just enough rest between episodes to make you eager for the next one. There are no staged moral lessons or moments of character building here; rather, just a boy on an adventure that would keep your average nine- to twelve-year-old turning the pages. I also like the “Irishness” of the tale. Eilis Dillon was an Irish writer who lived from 1920 to 1994. She wrote more than thirty books and has been called a Laura Ingalls Wilder for Ireland. You get a real sense for the land and people of Ireland at the time, from peat fires and potato stew to place names such as Bunraha, Kilbricken, and Cronagoarach.
Most of all I like the main character, Michael Farrell. There is a tendency these days to have the protagonist of adventure stories, especially if in any way connected to the British Isles, to be someone “special.” He has to have “second sight” or be descended from Druids. In a way, I have no problem with this device, but it leaves your average youngster out of the picture. And the best adventure books, such as those I mentioned at the beginning, always allow the reader to feel that he, too, may someday be caught up in some such tale. Michael Farrell is that type of hero; honest, simple, and free from self-pity. The sort of boy you’d want your son to be friends with.
One moment I particularly liked was when Michael asks his mother’s permission to go on the voyage. She, in turn, asks their farmhand Bill who replies: “It’s like this, ma’am: Michael is a fine big lad; used to a man’s work, and he has had a man’s responsibility before now. Well, if he goes and gets drowned, it will be because he was too silly to save himself. And if he’s too silly to save himself, then it’s worth no one else’s while to save him, for he’ll only live to get into some other trouble later on!” Wise words, really, and it makes me wonder if we should have our eighth graders go on some Outward Bound course for about a month before deciding to let them into the Upper School.
The Lost Island is a glass of fresh, cool water in boys’ books. Nothing to worry about, and plenty to enjoy. Have your son read it, and if he doesn’t enjoy it, send him to some bare-bones summer camp to toughen him up.