July 25, 2016
Last Chance Island
The cover art of Last Chance Island put me in mind of a maritime story that I was sure took place off the coast of Canada on the Atlantic side. North Atlantic Ocean, perhaps, or the Celtic Sea, but Canada, definitely not. Last Chance Island, the island of the title, is the journey’s end of the two protagonists of Last Chance Island, the book, which is told in the alternating voices of thirteen-year-old Kalu of Nigeria and fifteen-year-old Canadian Lily Spiekeford a.k.a. Spike.
While Kalu and his young cousin Aisha escape an attack on their African village by rebel soldiers, Spike is being sent home from boarding school upon learning of her father’s death. As much as both parties would love to stay put, unforeseen circumstances propel away from their homes. Kalu, with only a few pebbles and herbs and his bamboo flute as mementoes of home, takes Aisha to a small seaside village, hopeful of getting work on the boats. Finding nothing, Kalu makes himself available to a less-than-honest fisherman he calls Mister Elliot, squirrelling Aisha away on board. Meanwhile, the purple-haired, nose-ringed Spike is being sent away by her father’s live-in girlfriend to stay with Maureen Calhoun, a relative of Spike’s dead mother, who is a lighthouse keeper on Last Chance Island off the coast of Ireland, hopeful the girl will find a place “where you’ll belong.” (pg. 17)
Upon learning that the Irish coast guard is checking for illegal migrants and apprehensive about being caught with more than just his smuggled contraband, Mister Elliot drops the kids off at the island, promising to return when it’s safe. On the other side of the small island, Spike is being delivered by the water taxi of old Seamus who recognizes her as Lela’s daughter and tells her of Lela’s family living on the island, which he calls the “Beginning Place.” (pg. 55)
You know that the two sides are going to meet and it is fortunate for them to do so, even though Kalu is desperate to survive while waiting for Mister Elliot’s return, and Spike is bidding her time until she can escape the island and return to Dublin to join a group of street musicians she’s met. It’s the meeting of Spike with Kalu and Aisha that brings them all to realize that Last Chance Island has become their new home.
Norma Charles, whose book Run, Marco, Run (Ronsdale Press, 2011) also focuses on a young person escaping to a new home, contrasts the very different lives of Kalu and Spike as beginning places but demonstrates that circumstances can bring unlikely allies together in purpose and acceptance. The stories of Spike and Kalu may be on different trajectories but these paths are destined to collide at Last Chance Island, which thankfully is more opportunity than just destination terra firma. Norma Charles ensures that Last Chance Island becomes more than just a beacon for marine travellers; it is safe haven for a few lost souls too.