July 21, 2002
The plot of Gary Schmidt's newest novel for young adults is rooted in a shameful historical event: the eradication of a small African American community.
Yet, like many of his books, says Schmidt, a professor of English at Calvin College, it is foremost a story of a friendship.
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, published last month by Clarion Books, tells the tale of two teenagers. Lizzie Bright Griffin is a girl from Malaga, an island adjacent to the town of Phippsburg, Maine, while Turner Buckminster is the son of Phippsburg's new minister.
Turner hates Phippsburg, while Lizzie loves her island. When the two meet Lizzie's friendship opens up a whole new world to Turner. In fact, the two discover that the town elders, along with Turner's father, want to force the people to leave Lizzie's island so that Phippsburg can start a lucrative tourist trade there.
Schmidt credits his wife, Anne, with unearthing the Malaga story in a guidebook while on a family vacation in Maine. In 1912, Phippsburg evicted the mostly African American community from Malaga, placing many of the residents in a mental hospital, razing the island's homes and digging up the graveyard.
The eviction was intended as a beautification measure for the town, which planned to lure in more tourists with the construction of hotels.
But, says Schmidt, "the hotels were never built."
Schmidt says that that while the book is based on an unusual historical scenario, it also expresses a common struggle for young adults.
"One of the ways to grow up is to look at our childhood prejudices," he says. "There's that huge leap we make as adolescents that enables us to become who we are, or our best selves maybe."
Schmidt spent four years researching and writing Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, which contains some surprises, including a miraculous appearance by an elderly poetess.
"I always wondered what Emily Dickinson would be like at 90," Schmidt says with a smile.