“1838: Northumberland, England. Grace Darling enjoys her quiet island life at Longstone Lighthouse, at one with nature and the wild sea breezes. but her solitude is interrupted when she and her father rescue survivors of a shipwreck in a furious storm and Grace becomes celebrated throughout England, a heroine of her time. As her renown grows, so does her friendship with George Emmerson, an artist visiting the lighthouse. As George captures Grace with his brushes, she in turn captures hi heart. But as the accounts of her heroism escalate, Grace wonders if she has the courage to endure the relentless glare of fame.
1938: Newport, Rhode Island. Nineteen years old and pregnant, Matilda Emmerson arrives in America in disgrace, sent from her home in Ireland to stay with Harriet Flaherty, a reclusive relative and keeper at Rose Island Lighthouse. When a discarded, half-finished portrait opens a window into Matilda’s past, she sets out to discover the connection between a Victorian heroine and her own family. When a deadly hurricane approaches, two women, living a century apart, will be forever linked by their instinctive acts of bravery and love.
Inspired by true events, The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter is a sweeping historical novel that explores how our past shapes our present, and what it truly means to be courageous.”
-Synopsis from back of the book
*light spoilers ahead*
I didn’t know anything about Grace Darling prior to reading this book, which I think was a good thing. The story kicked off with a bang, as the Forefarshire ship disaster takes place and Grace has to help as many of the survivors as she can. It was a riveting start to the book.
The chapters vary by viewpoint and are woven together seamlessly. I will discuss each character briefly below with some of my thoughts.
Grace Darling and George Emmerson
My heart really went out to Grace throughout this story. She was an expert lighthouse keeper and yet couldn’t take over the role from her father because she was born in a time when women were only expected to marry and have children. While she wasn’t against either of those roles, she knew that her heart was with the lighthouse. She shared the gift her father had when it came to maintaining the lighthouse, and understanding what the duty of the lighthouse keeper is.
Grace stood out to George Emmerson from the moment they met, and yet he was also bound by his duty to marry someone else. This made things very strained for both of them, wanting to confess their feelings but knowing it would be fruitless. I could see where the story was going, but it was still heartbreaking to see George have to walk away from Grace. I was hoping he would throw tradition to the wind and tell her how he really felt, but neither of them was honest when they needed to be and that shaped both of their lives from that point on.
Matilda’s story takes place in 1938 and is more of the “present day” perspective as she learns about her family’s history and connection to Grace Darling. She arrives, pregnant, at Harriet’s home in Rhode Island under the pretense that once she has her baby she will return to Ireland and no one will speak of it again. But the more she becomes accustomed to life on the island, the more she feels a connection and a desire to learn more about Harriet.
“The old postcard of Ida and Grace rests on the windowsill beside the painted seashells. I think about these two women who kept the lights all those years ago. I think about the newspaper reports, and accounts of the courage they’d shown, not only in the rescues they carried out, but in the face of unwanted fame also. It strikes me that I need to find some of that courage myself.Matilda Emmerson, from The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter by Hazel Gaynor
Matilda grows a lot over the course of the book and has a big decision to make for the future of her child. She learns things about her past that put into perspective many memories and experiences she had with her parents. I was glad that she ultimately decided to stay in Rhode Island because that was more her home than Ireland ever would be.
I liked Harriet right away. She was so American compared to Matilda; when she answered the door with a pipe, wearing men’s clothing and greeting Matilda in a not so friendly way, I knew she was going to be an interesting character. It just made me laugh even though I knew that her brusque demeanor meant something unhappy was probably lurking in her past.
Harriet’s story was heartbreaking in so many ways. Just as we were getting to know her, fate took a turn and I was truly shocked by what happened to her. I wish it had ended differently and I thought it was maybe an unexpected ending.
Did any other readers feel this way? I could have seen Matilda wanting to take on the family tradition of being a lighthouse keeper without what happens to Harriet having influenced her. In other words, I didn’t think it had to happen and I was pretty bummed about it.
The only thing I will mention with the story is that at the beginning it was a little difficult to follow the characters. It was common at the time for families to name children after parents or siblings or grandparents and there are a lot of repeat names in the first few chapters. I couldn’t quite sort out who was who until later in the story. That was my only “issue” although I wouldn’t even call it that. The writing in this book was beautiful and the descriptions were very realistic. I was curious about Grace’s story and I’m glad I learned more about it because it was fascinating. However, the ending was just so sad and left me feeling a little blue, so I would keep that in mind if you decide to read this one.
As with most Hazel Gaynor books, I immediately wanted to read more about the actual events that inspired the story. I was so glad to see that she included some of the books that helped her with research and to learn more about Grace Darling’s life. I’ve added them to my own reading list and look forward to reading them someday.