The Island Keeper by Harry Mazer

Do you have one of those books? You know the one I mean…the one you can’t remember the author of but the story never quite leaves your mind?  Maybe you even remember the artwork from the cover, but the title still eludes you?  The Island Keeper is, or more correctly now, was one of those books for me.  It is now one of just a few that I’ve been able to identify again, and luckily my library still had a vintage 1981 copy.

theislandkeeper_mazerWhen I read it as a young teenager (pretty sure I read a school library copy in 1982 – I was a TA and often got the first check out of new books), I saw some problems with it.  Though I didn’t have these specific terms for what I saw in my reading back then, I still remember being unable to relate to or comprehend the level of privilege and also thinking that this book was very much about fat shaming.

Now, rereading it again after all these years, these two issues are definitely present, but what also still comes through is the way that 16-year-old Cleo slowly becomes strong and self-reliant.  And that, I think, is why this story was stuck somewhere in the back of my mind for the past thirty or so years, though I couldn’t even picture the cover.

Initially planning to spend three days on the island her father owns in Canada, Cleo runs away from her famous, distant father and controlling, critical grandmother.  Deep in grief over the loss of her younger sister, Jam, that only compounds the older grief over her mother’s death, she feels a need to escape and has a step by step plan.

What starts as three days slowly becomes a summer, as she finds a cave and figures out how to survive and to start stilling some of the negative self-talk, the voice in her head that continues to criticize and belittle.  A storm, however, traps her on the island and she is forced to go to extreme measures to survive into winter.

Then she saves herself.  And that, I think, is part of what redeems any negatives.  While the very end is vaguely unsatisfying this time around, I now find myself wondering how Cleo would fair after her time on the island.  And though it is small and easily missed, I rather like her grandmother’s reaction to Cleo’s weightloss.  Having probably had much to do with Cleo’s inner voice’s fat shaming, she is rather at a loss for words over the changes in her granddaughter’s physical appearance and says that she doesn’t know if she can get used to it.  Cleo’s grandmother rather reminds me of the Boston grandmother in Disney’s The Parent Trap.

Beyond the fact that this was a Young Adult book long before YA was a thing, I found the aspects of this book that make it feel dated or implausible to be part of it’s charm, particularly the lack of technology we often take for granted in the 21st century.  While never a favorite book, I do think I would like to add a copy to my bookshelves for the occasional reread.  So much of what happens in the book was just as I remembered it, even though I only read it once, and what was different was easily adjusted to as I could see some logic to how my memory of it had changed.

Finding a book that I thought I might never identify has been a joy, and I hope is just the first of several that I’ve been freshly wondering about lately.  Each time I am able to identify a book like this it brings back memories, but my reading of it brings new, and I hope deeper, insight.

The Island Keeper by Harry Mazer | Delacorte Press, 1981 | library hardback, 165 pages


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