Kay and Thea, her newly married and much older half-sister, set off one morning in 1911 aboard the sailing ship, The Morning Light. The ship is a trading vessel bound for the South Seas, and captained by Thea’s new husband, Frances. Never having been to sea before, Kay does not realize, at first, that she has found the place in which she is most at home, in all the world. Thirteen years old, and gleefully barefoot, she is a born sailor, and delights in her escape from her limited life in Yarmouth. And quite fortunately, Mr. Brimner also happens to be aboard. He is shipping out to a missionary position in the South Seas, but Thea engages him to be a tutor for her sister. Latin, they both agree, is tedious, but Greek? What could be better than the tales of a sea-faring folk?
About half way through the voyage, they briefly pass by a Polynesian island where the native people are clearly starving, but all the men want to trade for is tobacco. They are so desperate for it that they pass off a young boy to pay for it. Frances and Thea accept him since he clearly will soon starve to death here. Thea has had a few miscarriages at this point, and accepts him as a son. And Kay is delighted with her new kid brother, promptly welcoming him into their lives, and teaching him to speak and read English, as well as Greek. But there is another element at play. Thea as a child, along with her late missionary father, were involved in the Native American boarding schools in Canada, a tragic situation. And now she is still torn between the desire to do good, and the awareness that previous attempts were very much not that. This presents the moral dilemma of the book in that wanting to do good may well not be good.
The best part of the book though, for me, was the shipboard scenes. Although there is danger, and an often harsh life, there is beauty as well. Here is a bit from the solar eclipse they experience in the midst of the Pacific. As the sun starts to slip into darkness, “In the weird descending twilight, the water was full of shapes. Whales, many of them, had come to the surface, their heads gazing up . . . A head and another head, another – dotted across a wide space, twenty or thirty dolphins and whale had risen from the deeps, all looking up into the heavens together to where the sky was growing murkier, yellower, more somber and burst umber every minute”. Magical.