It's been a long time since a story has moved me to tears. With Walk Across the Sea, Susan Fletcher has written a tale about 1886 California, the prejudice against the Chinese and a 13-year-old girl's friendship with a "heathen" China Boy a relationship that develops after he saves her goat from a "sneaker wave" that threatens to wash both Eliza and the animal out to sea.

But the story is about so much more. Eliza lives with her parents on an island reached by an isthmus that can be crossed only at low tide. Her father is the lighthouse keeper. When her mother miscarries and must be hospitalized, Eliza begins to question God's goodness. She wrestles with moral questions as she watches the Chinese get evicted from her town. She wonders what part God plays in punishing us for our sins: "What if God wasn't keeping an account of good and evil things? What if he just didn't care?"

In dealing with her anger at the injustice of her townsfolk and coming to terms with her sister's death, Eliza searches the Bible: "I was looking for passages . . . about how all men are brothers. I was looking for answers."

Eventually, Eliza finds the strength to defy her father, as she harbors the China Boy, Wah Chung, in her family's shed and tries to help him. A terrible storm, a secret and Eliza's fierce determination to do what is right bring the novel to a satisfying end. Eliza realizes that "Nothing was safe, not in the whole of this wide world," and yet there are miracles and love "and glories well beyond our knowing." Eliza's voice is totally believable, her spunk admirable. Fletcher tackles difficult themes with a sure hand and doesn't flinch from what is hard to face in death . . . and life. Her deft use of period language and detail make this historical book unforgettable. There is beauty in her words and in the "secret worlds" she reveals. Walk Across the Sea is a grand read, a story that opens its arms to the mysteries of the world and the yearnings of the human heart.

Deborah Wiles' first two books for children, Freedom Summer and Love, Ruby Lavender, were published this spring.

 

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