By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main
Newsflash: the Old Book Curmudgeon LOVED The Highest Tide. Ok, I wasn’t so sure at first. I can be a little hasty about books, and the plot involves one 13-year-old boy’s summer on Skookumchuck Bay. I wasn’t sure if I would be interested in a 13-year-old boy no matter HOW many excellent reviews the book has gotten.
However, it didn’t take long before I began to like the boy and the book very much. Jim Lynch writes with a subtle touch, the characters slowly revealing themselves. Things that might seem obvious at first, are revealed in much more depth later on, with just a few words, a couple of sentences.
Initially, I was entranced by the descriptions of the sea life on the tidal flats of Puget Sound. I loved going along with Miles as he turned over rocks (replacing them exactly the way they were) on his rounds across the flats. It was like listening to a marine biologist, only a young, humorous one.
Our protagonist, is a small-for-his-age, “almost 14”-year-old. He is the only child of parents who seem seriously mismatched, and his best friend so far in life, Florence, is a very old and disabled lady who used to have a modest business as a psychic. He has a crush on his neighbor, who is spiraling into mental illness and is also an entrepeneur with a budding sea life business. No wonder he has trouble sleeping nights.
Miles O’Malley has a rich inner life, a passion for the sea and for Rachel Carson, and he is gifted with the capacity to think and act in ways that are out of the ordinary, in the sense that he thinks of others, even other life forms, more than he thinks of himself. So you might call Miles an “old soul”, except that he’s also an unintentionally very funny old soul.
Miles is an insomniac, which he blames on Rachel Carson:
“There is no drop of water in the ocean, not even in the deepest parts of the abyss, that does not know and respond to the mysterious forces that create the tide.” (Rachel Carson)
“How do you read that sentence, yawn and turn out the lights?” Miles asks us, and then goes on to explain that he also makes his best discoveries on moonlit nights when he can’t sleep and prowls the flats of Skookumchuck Bay at low tide. One night his ears pick up a faint, but very different sound from across the vast, dark mudflats and gravelly shore: “It was an exhale, a release of sorts, and I instantly wondered if a whale was stranded again.” He approaches cautiously and finds the unbelievable: an Architeuthis, a giant squid. It will later be confirmed by Dr. Kramer, his mentor, at a huge media event, and thus begins a summer of notoriety for Miles.
Other discoveries follow: about sea creatures, about himself, Florence (his elderly friend), Phelps (his unlikely paid associate, whose obsessive interests are more typical: girls and rock ‘n roll), his parents, his love interest. As in most “young adult” novels, the protagonist faces changes and grows to meet them.
Some of the experiences are pretty rough and Miles often turns to the sea for help:
“…it was hard for me to feel fear or sadness at dawn on that bay… the water was so clear I could see coon-stripe shrimp in the eelgrass near the tavern and the bottomless bed of white clam shells pooled across the sunken tip of Penrose Point.
“Those shells, as unique and timeless as bones, helped me realize that we all die young, that in the life of the earth, we are houseflies, here for one flash of light.”
You certainly don’t have to be 14 to relate to this book. The themes resonate well with people (like the Old Book Curmudgeon) who are at the opposite end of their own timeline.
What might happen if we really paid attention to life? What might we discover about the world and ourselves if we just looked a little closer and a little longer? We’re swept along by the tides of time whether we will or nil; so much of life seemingly out of our control. Maybe at a certain point the changes don’t look so good as we are drawn inexorably out to sea. And yet, the way Lynch frames things, it doesn’t sound so bad.
Miles draws strength from Rachel Carson’s philosophy. He especially admires that she was not “intimidated by time”. When she looked at the ocean she summed up that:
“In its mysterious past it encompasses all the dim origins of life and receives in the end, after, it may be, many transmutations, the dead husks of the same life. For all at last return to the sea—to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end.” Rachel Carson
This book would be a gold mine for book clubs. Lots of material for thoughtful discussion here.
Don’t let the liberal use of the “F” word throw you off or you might be too hasty and miss a great little work that illuminates the best in us.