home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

the light at tern rock

18 may 2023

The Light at Tern Rock (Newbery runner-up, 1952) is a low-key adventure story that never quite resolves. Like Julia Sauer's 1944 Newbery runner-up Fog Magic, Tern Rock favors mystery over melodrama, suggesting that the adult world may hold complications for kids that growing up never fully allows us to understand. Sauer would win only these two Newbery honors, never the Medal itself; but her work holds up better than that of many a more celebrated children's writer.

The Light at Tern Rock is a large-scale picture book, with vivid drawings by Georges Schreiber. The plot is simple. A lighthouse keeper named Byron Flagg explains to Martha Morse, widow of a former keeper, that he needs a brief break to visit family. Would Martha and her nephew Ronnie staff the lighthouse, just for a couple of weeks? He'll pick them up by mid-December.

Tern Rock is remote and windswept, but cozy. After Martha and Ronnie get out to the lighthouse, a reader expects a big shoe to drop in the form of a storm and a shipwreck. That doesn't happen. Nothing happens, really. In particular, Byron Flagg doesn't show up on the 15th of December. Or for a week afterward. Or by Christmas. Or, within the parameters of the story, ever.

Ronnie is annoyed. Martha chalks this up to "missing a Christmas party at school and a measly stocking full of candy" (47). But Ronnie's hurt seems to go far deeper. He feels that Flagg has betrayed them. His nascent sense of injustice is severely tested by this abandonment.

There's some backstory we never get, and the book is all the better for never spelling it out. Ronnie is presumably an orphan, and he's not a blood relation of Martha's. She feels "even more responsible for him because he's a nephew" (12), "son of my husband's brother" (16). Schreiber's drawings portray Martha as fairly ancient, much older than the schoolchild Ronnie – this age disparity is perhaps plausible if we imagine Martha as perhaps somewhat older than her husband, and her husband much older than that brother. We never learn how Ronnie's parents left the picture; all we know is that the old woman and the young boy are thrown very much into dependence on each other.

And why hasn't Flagg shown up? This we do learn. As Christmas approaches without relief, Martha and Ronnie notice a box of presents, with a letter inside addressed to Martha. Schreiber's drawing of the box (44-45) hints at a possible romantic overture by Flagg to Martha. But this is unlikely, given that he's abandoned her in the middle of the ocean. And the letter offers not courtship but craven apology. Flagg is sixty and childless, and this year is his one chance in life – being a professional lighthouse keeper and all – to spend the holiday "with a parcel of young ones" (60). He sensed he couldn't talk anyone into willingly spending Christmas on Tern Rock, so he tricked Martha and Ronnie into doing it with promises of an earlier return.

That's … bizarre. And that's almost the end of the book. With no pickup in the offing, Martha and Ronnie actually stop worrying and resolve to enjoy a holiday that somehow oddly fits with the spirit of Christmas better than conventional festivities would have.

The result is a memorable if unsettling children's Christmas story. The Light at Tern Rock is still in print, though in a smaller-format paperback, so one imagines it still finds readers charmed by its gentle oblique tone.

Sauer, Julia L. The Light at Tern Rock. Illustrated by Georges Schreiber. New York: Viking, 1951.