HMH Books for Young Readers, $16.99 hardcover, ISBN-10 0547853157, February 2014
When Willa Dixon’s brother dies on the family lobster boat, her father forbids Willa from stepping foot on the deck again. With her family suffering, she’ll do anything to help out—even visiting the Grey Man. Everyone in her small Maine town knows of this legendary spirit who haunts the lighthouse, controlling the fog and the fate of any vessel within his reach. But what Willa finds in the lighthouse isn’t a spirit at all, but a young man trapped inside until he collects one thousand souls. Desperate to escape his cursed existence, Grey tries to seduce Willa to take his place. With her life on land in shambles, will she sacrifice herself?
Mitchell’s eerie fairy tale is at once fantasy and an exploration of the dying culture of smalltown America and family businesses. Willa has never wanted to take an aptitude test or go away to college, not when she knows where she belongs: in her small Maine town, fishing on her family’s lobster boat, eventually taking over the business and passing it down to her children and their children, forever and ever, amen. After a dispute over fishing territories leads to her brother’s death, though, everything changes. Willa’s father won’t allow her out on the boat anymore, and the Dixons’ finances are faltering. The penalty for Willa’s part in the “gear war” (fishing gear, not mechanical gears, which took me a second) hits the family business harder than anyone could have imagined.
The Grey Man wants out of his lighthouse and back into the world. He’s in a Beast situation: the lighthouse provides for all his wants, but unless someone breaks his curse, he can never leave. As for collecting a thousand souls, he’s only gathered four in all his years as the Grey Man. Simple mathematics tells him he’ll stay in the lighthouse until the coastline crumbles at that rate. Someone has to take his place. However, he refuses to trick or trap his replacement as was done to him. When he meets Willa and sees that she only longs to stay in her town forever, he’s sure he’s found the right match, if only she will agree to become the Grey Lady.
Willa’s sections of the narrative are bleak and drag at times, while Grey’s have a more proper and antique feel to the language but always inject a livelier note. Mitchell raises an important question beyond the main narrative: What happens to families when their livelihood is taken? What place does a family business have in corporate America, and what is left for the scions of small businesses when their families are edged out of the market? Mitchell also steers clear of the paranormal romance angle one might expect from the plot summary and the general YA tendency toward pairing up teen girls and ancient inhuman creatures. For a fantasy, this story delivers a heavy dose of reality. Patient, thoughtful readers will probably connect, but readers who crave tons of action and romantic tension should be aware that they’ll get little of either here.
Recommend to: Fans of issue dramas, readers who like a slower pace and plenty of situational/setting development
To buy or not to buy: A solid purchase for medium to large YA collections.
This review refers to a digital ARC edition provided by the publisher via Edelweiss.