Painters and Puffins

The Puffin Keeper – written by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Benji Davies
Tundra Books, 2022

This is an unusual book. It’s the story of a young boy growing to manhood, an environmental tale, a nostalgic look back at the days of lighthouses, a family story, and a lesson in sacrifice.  Michael Morpurgo, in his afterword, explains how Penguin, and then Puffin books for children, are the great success story of his father-in-law, Allen Lane. Children will enjoy the Puffin Keeper even without that context; it clarifies the book’s tone for adults.  Morpurgo looks back at the World War II era, recalling the resilience of the British people, and also celebrates the power of literacy for both children and adults.  The young hero is an aspiring artist, and Benji Davies’ pictures use color and line to with richness and delicacy. The Puffin Keeper is a book about the past, but also about the human connections that tie the past to the future.

There is also quite a lot of adventure, which Morpurgo describes with understated simplicity.  When Allen Williams, his mother, and their fellow passengers are stranded by a shipwreck, the eccentric Benjamin Postlethwaite, Puffin Island’s lighthouse keeper, comes to their rescue.  Allen is struck not only by the old man’s generosity, but by the original works of art which he has created. Allen leaves the island with the special gift of a nautical painting by Benjamin; it will become a touchstone for him in the years to come. 

The book is not long, and each detail is carefully chosen.  Allen was born in New York City. His father has died and he and his mother, who is French, have returned to England, his father’s original home. As in a compelling nineteenth-century novels, Allen suffers from a rigid upbringing with his strict grandparents as guardians. His beautiful and loving mother supports her son’s love of art, and validates. Allen writes letters to Benjamin Postlethwaite, but receives none in return.  Later, he enrolls in boarding school, where a sympathetic art teacher becomes another of the adults who guides and supports him. Eventually, everyone in his web of relationships interacts in some way, sometimes in unpredictable ways. There is a touch of mystery as he attempts to find Benjamin, and the tragedy of war also intervenes. 

Meanwhile, the puffins, who had been disappearing from their island, need to be restored.  Morpurgo and Davies depict the delicate balance between freedom and safety, personal aspirations and collective sacrifice. At the end of the book, a deep satisfaction in the resolution of different problems is far from contrived.  After all the interruptions of fate, everyone has a place and a purpose, the fulfillment of creativity and of caring for others.  An old-fashioned story in the very best sense, The Puffin Keeper also has unquestionable value today.

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