[Book Review] Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean

In the summer of 1727, a group of men and boys are put ashore on a remote sea stac to harvest birds for food. No one returns to collect them. Why? Surely nothing but the end of the world can explain why they have been abandoned to endure storms, starvation and terror. And how can they survive, housed in stone and imprisoned on every side by the ocean?

Where the World Ends is set on the island of St. Kilda, off the coast of Scotland. A group of boys and three adult men are delivered to Warrior stac, which is less of an island and more of a rock (featured on the book cover) jutting out of the ocean. On the stac, the boys and men are meant to harvest the local birds for profit. This includes killing gannet, puffin, and garefowl for meat and for the oil in the birds’ stomachs, which they will sell when they are picked up and returned to the main island. This is how the people of the St. Kilda archipelagos make a living. However, this time, no one comes to pick them up.

There’s a lot to love in this book, but there are also several drawbacks. The writing itself is lovely, and the book design is gorgeous in terms of the cover art and the inner binding (pictured below). The genre of historical young adult fiction is a hefty challenge in and of itself to write. Historical fiction alone is a difficult subject to craft, but to then add the feat of making the historical facts and setting palatable and even entertaining for a younger audience is not a simple task. McCaughrean does a valiant job of incorporating terms of the time, such as “bothy,” “cleit,” and “kirk”–which are helpfully included in a glossary at the end of the book–and a specific dialect that isn’t too hard to understand. For a book based in the year 1727, the tone was deceptively modern.

As an adult reader of the book, I did find myself wondering whether a young reader would be entertained by the story. Not much happens. Quill, our protagonist, is stranded on the stac with a group of fellow young boys and three adults. Yet, once the party realizes their retrieval boat may not ever return, the rest of the book is comprised of not much more than waiting. Yes, some interesting things happen, including a death and a near suicide attempt. There are a few broken bones, a few lost appendages, and quite a few close calls and shenanigans, but overall the pace of the novel is very slow, and I often found myself wondering where the story could be going.

Granted, I’m not personally a fan of survival narratives, man vs. nature struggles, so perhaps that’s part of the reason why I was disappointed by this book. But I also found myself wondering why McCaughrean geared it towards a younger audience rather than making it a general fiction book. If the book had been for adults, McCaughrean would have had the opportunity to explore philosophical musings more deeply and perhaps we could have had a few sparse chapters from the adult men’s perspectives, but as it is, the book seems to be missing something for me. It did win the Michael L. Printz award, so perhaps my take on the book is way off. All in all, it was a good story, but the pacing was slow. I finished the book happy to have learned the true history of events from the author’s afterword and glad a book on the story existed in order to preserve the tale. Still, it felt like something was missing. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to articulate what exactly that something may have been though.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

PUBLICATION DEETS: Flatiron Books, May 1, 2017, 320 pages

CATEGORY: YA, historical fiction

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