Pine Island Home by Polly Horvath

Review by Sara Francoeur

Puffin Canada, September 2020

240 pages, hardcover, $19.99 CAD, 9780735268623

Ages 9-12, Grades 4-7

Middle Grade, Contemporary Realism

“I want Mommy and Daddy,” said Charlie.

They ignored this. They knew at some level Charlie still felt that if she repeated this enough she could somehow resurrect her parents with the force of her sheer longing. They did not encourage this but they did not discourage it either. Fiona thought it was a sad thing to witness but it would be worse when Charlie finally stopped.

“We have everything we need.  The only thing that other people think we need is a grown-up. But I think I can care for us. I don’t think we need a grown-up.”

“Doesn’t matter what you think,” said Marlin practically. “No one is going to let us live on our own once they find out that’s what we are doing.” 

After the sudden death of their missionary parents, the four McCready sisters between the ages of eight and fourteen are sent from their home in Borneo to faraway west-coast Canada to live in a seaside village on fictional Pine Island.

Upon arrival, they find themselves on their own again. The distant relative who was supposed to be their caregiver has also recently passed away. Fiona, Natasha, Marlin and Charlie McCready don’t fall into the unrestrained freedom of never-ending fun like Pippi Longstocking. Instead, they work together to shape an orderly and responsible existence while grappling with their unexpected circumstances in an idyllic setting.

Each sister has their own distinct character traits, which are reflected in how they approach the challenges in their young lives. Being well-travelled has taught them independence and resourcefulness, and although they deeply mourn the loss of their parents, and yearn for security. their love for one another helps them navigate a series of events that threaten to upend their new life, or worse, separate them from each other for good.

Orphaned children finding their own way in a world of adult problems is an all-too familiar storyline. Although the trope might be predictable, Pine Island Home offers a delightful modern-day spin and a picturesque Gulf Island setting makes it entirely unique. Considering the trauma the sisters have experienced, their tender moments of longing for someone to care for them, along with expressions of child-like frustration and emotional volatility, build a strong emotional connection between the reader and the characters.

Midway through the story, author Polly Horvath sets up a fairytale ending, and it appears as if things are falling into place in a most predictable way. While that would have been gratifying, it would also have been a tad uninteresting. When things do not progress as expected, the reader finds themselves guessing just how on earth the story will conclude, and which of the adult characters from the town might help these sweet sisters stay together.

A highlight of the story is the heritage homestead in St-Mary’s-by-the-Sea, which the sisters attempt to make their own without any adult supervision. This is a town where people look out for each other, trust each other, and children play at ease in the wild surroundings. Canadian readers will enjoy the descriptions of island geography and wildlife, as well as a thoughtful passage about a local resident bear that captivates young Charlie McCready.

Of note is the sophisticated vocabulary, which at times might require a dictionary for the average middle-grade reader. Perhaps this is deliberate, as it causes the reader to pause and consider how a word’s meaning benefits the scene and adds value to a sentence. The prose often feels nostalgic and, combined with the setting, can serve to distract the reader from some of the story’s more serious themes, such as death, alcoholism and abandonment. 

If you are looking for an ultimately hopeful story with endearing characters and a charming setting, look no further. Readers who enjoyed the warm, family-centered theme of Karina Yan Glaser’s The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street will also love Pine Island Home.

Sara Francoeur lives just outside of Vancouver with her husband and three daughters. She enjoys walking on the beach with her dog, Pinterest crafts, TikTok dances, and painting.  With a degree in comparative religion and a background in fashion, Sara now studies Creative Writing at UBC.

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