Monday, October 29, 2012

Book Review: The Eyes of the Amaryllis by Natalie Babbitt

I beg your indulgence as I set up this review a little, so you can understand the frame of mind I came to The Eyes of the Amaryllis with. My family moved to The Gambia the summer after I turned nine, and there for the first time I met the mystery and power of the sea. It was such a new experience that we glutted ourselves with beach-going several times a week. When my parents wouldn't take us, my older brother and I would cycle to the beach off of the Sunwing Hotel to hunt in tide pools and estuaries at low tide. I loved the ocean - the moods, the sounds, the smells; but I learned to fear it too.  A few months after we moved to The Gambia, our next door neighbor's son, a big, strapping, friendly lad of fourteen, drowned in the ocean. It was shocking and horrifying, the suddenness and manner of his death.

In July after I turned eleven I had my own near-drowning experience. I went swimming off the beach at the American Ambassador's residence during a Fourth of July community picnic, and got caught in the undertow. I got carried a long way out, and couldn't get back in because of the force of the undertow. There were some young Peace Corps Volunteers swimming nearby, but I didn't even have the energy to call to them for help. I faced the terrifying reality that I was probably going to die because there was no way I could muster the energy to try swimming again. I alternated treading water and floating on my back, contemplating death and thinking that I didn't want to die like my poor neighbor friend. I hated the thought of what it would do to my family. Fortunately for me, one of those Peace Corps volunteers could apparently tell I was in trouble, even though I hadn't spoken. "Getting tired?" he asked quietly as he swam up to me. I nodded my head and he put his hand under my armpit. "The undertow's bad today. I'm going to show you how to beat it. Let's swim this way." Swimming by my side, we swam parallel with the beach for a little way, and then he lead us in at an angle. That man saved my life. I was too tired to do more than whisper a thank you when we made the beach. He went off with a little wave and a "You'll be alright now", as I lay heaving on the sand, and I didn't see him again that day, even though I looked for him. I never even learned his name, but I'm alive today because he came along. (I didn't tell my parents of my near-death for years, out of fear that they'd ban me from ocean-swimming. In college I became a lifeguard, and then a life guard instructor and first aid and CPR instructor in an attempt to "pass it on.")

It was a year or so later, when I was twelve I think, that I first encountered The Eyes of the Amaryllis by Natalie Babbitt in the Banjul American Embassy School's library. Written in 1977, it was the first book I read by Natalie Babbitt. There were a couple of her other books on the shelf, but this one sounded the most intriguing, so I read it first. I was instantly captivated by the atmospheric, mysterious story that seemed to capture the hypnotic pull of the sea. It struck me powerfully at the time, I think because of my cumulative experiences with the ocean, and because I, like Jenny in the story, had grandmothers I didn't know very well.

The story takes place in 1880, when eleven year old Jenny (whose real name is Geneva) is being taken to stay with her paternal grandmother, the first Geneva, who has broken her foot and needs help until it mends. Jenny's Gran lives on a bluff in a bay on the Atlantic coast, in the same house she came to fifty years before as a bride.
"To be away from home--to stay with Gran and help her while her ankle mended--this seemed a very grownup thing to do, and Jenny had boasted about it to her friends. But in truth she was a little alarmed about that part, though her grandmother, whom she had seen before only for two weeks of the yearly Christmas season, had long been a figure of romance to her. Gran was not like other grandmothers, smelling of starch or mothballs, depending on the time of the year, and spending their time watering their plants. Gran stood straight and proud. Her face and arms were sunburned. And though she talked and listened, there always seemed to be something else on her mind, something far more absorbing than Christmas conversation.
But Jenny did not care for household chores, and was not at all sure that somewhere in her lay hidden the makings of a bedside nurse. So it wasn't that part of her adventure that excited her. No, the real enticement was the ocean. But this she could not admit. She was the only one of her friends who had never been to the shore. Preposterous, when it was only thirty miles from Springfield! But her father had never let her come, had always refused to discuss it."
Jenny quickly bonds with her unusual Gran, and learns that Gran has been waiting for years for a gift from the sea, a gift from her dead husband. (Thirty years before, Gran's sea captain husband drowned when his ship, the Amaryllis, sank just off the coast of home in a storm, as his wife and child watched from the bluff in helpless horror.) Ever since, Gran has searched the beaches every day at high tide, no matter the time or weather for some memento. (That is, in fact, how she broke her foot.) Now Gran needs Jenny to be her eyes and legs on the beach, and continue the search. But there is another searcher, a mysterious man named Seward, who could not let such a gift be taken from the sea.

I won't tell you anymore. It's the perfect book to read this time of year, if you want a little spookiness.

Twelve year old me loved this book, and because I loved it, I went on to read Tuck Everlasting, which I also loved. I was loath to re-read it as an adult, lest it lose the magic. I'm happy to report, however, that it holds up to adult reading very well, and I caught nuances of the relationship between Gran and her son (Jenny's father) that I didn't fully understand at the time of my first reading, and understand Gran's obsession a little better now, too.

Published in 1977 by Farrar, Straus and Girouux.

1 comment:

  1. That's a great story. I hadn't even known about this title, although I've liked Babbitt's other books. I'll look this one up -- thanks!