It’s always fun to come across a book that makes you wonder if the author took a look in one of your old diaries. Becca Fair and Foul by Deirdre Baker is one of those books. I picked it up from our new book shelf at work, attracted by the cover, and was hooked by the first page. It seems that there’s a first book, Becca at Sea, which I haven’t read.
At any rate, this book takes place over one summer on an island in Canada (I believe near Vancouver? I was a bit muzzy as to geography), where Becca and her cousins have come to stay with their grandmother. Her friend Jane is there too, and she and Jane decide to put on a Shakespeare play (with the unwilling help of cousins) to raise money to buy a better sailboat than the one they currently have access to.
As a kid, this would have been absolutely catnip to me. I loved sailing and boats, and my siblings and I often spent part of the summer at our grandparents’ house by the sea, with our cousin. (Not, alas, on an island.) I read just about every nautical-themed book I could get my hands on and, though my exposure to Shakespeare was probably limited to Lamb’s Tales From, I would have sympathized deeply with the desire to put on a play.
As an adult reader, all the old nostalgic love for those things is there. But I also admire the way that Baker takes what on the surface is a rather adventurey story and makes it a vehicle for exploring Becca’s very late elementary/early middle school experience of life. This is the summer when she notices and is hurt by the death of the animals around her, even though it’s a natural part of life. The summer when her aunts are hurting and there’s nothing anyone can do to truly fix it. It’s not a morbid or a sad book, but it does go a lot deeper than the initial premise suggests, allowing the lovely descriptions of the island and funny moments with the other inhabitants to exist alongside Aunt Meg’s pain over her stillbirth and the burial of the bear.
While I do admire the depth that the story reaches, and the handling of the various sadder moments in a way that felt just right for a sensitive tween reader, I do want to mention that the story at the same time feels limited. Everyone is white, and one of Becca’s aunts is a doctor with an AIDs center in Africa. Ultimately, Jane and Becca decide to give the proceeds of their play to this aunt, for her research and to help save the grandmothers and children there. In that sense it feels like a very old-fashioned book, and not in a good way. I really wished that this storyline had at least been counterbalanced with the presence of some people of color on the island or in the main story itself, or with someone more mature than the kids providing some pushback to the white saviorism there.
So, ultimately this is one that I personally really enjoyed both on a nostalgic level and as an adult reader–there are some really funny scenes, some really heartbreaking ones, and a keen description of both the nature world and Becca’s growing awareness of life. But I also had some reservations about it, so I’m not entirely sure who I’d recommend this book to. All the same, if you also love anything set by the sea, or quiet books about growing up, this might be a great fit.
Previously on By Singing Light:
The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar (2017)
Roses and Rot by Kat Howard (2016)
Diana Wynne Jones reading notes: Howl’s Moving Castle (2015)
The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson (2014)