The idea of “safe harbour” began as a nautical concept, referring to a place of safety for seafaring vessels during wartime or storms. It is neither a departure point nor a destination, but a sheltered waypoint. It’s a concept that has been extended, over time, to refer in general to places that offer protection or refuge.
It also makes for a powerful theme, as illustrated by two new novels for young readers.
In the aptly titled Safe Harbour, Bracebridge, Ontario, writer Christina Kilbourne follows 14-year-old Harbour Mandrayke, who, as the novel opens, is living in a Toronto ravine. She is quick to clarify that she is not homeless: she is waiting on the arrival of her father, who is travelling up from Florida on the Starlight, the sailboat on which they have lived since the death of Harbour’s mother years before. When he fails to arrive as planned and her credit card stops working, Harbour is forced to confront the uncertainty of what has happened to her father and the unforgiving nature of a Toronto winter. (How she ended up there, alone, and what has happened to her father, are among the many mysteries which enliven the novel.)
Her friendship with Lise, a girl living in a teen shelter, provides Harbour something of a refuge, but it’s only temporary. As the novel unfolds, the secrets of Harbour’s past, the nature of her relationship with her father, and her tenuous hopes for the future are gradually revealed, to devastating effect.
Safe Harbour is beautifully constructed and written. Each revelation arises naturally and effortlessly, and Harbour’s voice feels realistic. Kilbourne doesn’t flinch from the realities of teenage girls living on the streets: Harbour and Lise face predators (animal and human), harsh weather, illness, substance abuse (a scene where two characters drink hand sanitizer mixed with Gatorade is treated with a terrifying banality), and the difficulties of merely making it from one day to the next. All told, it’s a dramatic coming-of-age story about reconciling the dark secrets of the past and facing an uncertain future.
On the Edge, the debut novel from Merrickville, Ontario, writer Lesley Strutt, is more ambitious but ultimately less successful.
Orphaned at age five, Emma Visser has lived with her repressive, controlling aunt and uncle for nearly a decade. The only joy in her life is spending time with Jess, an elderly woman who teaches Emma to sail. After Jess dies, secrets from the past are revealed, including the fact that Emma’s mother may be alive and living in the Bahamas. The teen protagonist sets a course from Kingston, Ontario, to the Caribbean – and sails away on Jess’s boat, the Edge.
Strutt weaves a mystery and thriller around the dangers of Emma’s journey. It’s not just storms and fog that plague her but a very real sense that someone is following her, leaving notes on her boat whenever she goes ashore.
Unfortunately, the breezy, exclamation-heavy tone of On the Edge barely allows the suspense to register. Emma’s frequent troubles – running aground, almost getting crushed by a freighter, and so on – are handled so fleetingly that there is little opportunity for the reader to register the extent of her peril. There’s both an overwrought and a metronomic quality to the book: rather than building and developing, On the Edge comes to feel like merely a series of events, none more significant than the other. The same is true for the central mystery: because everything is presented in such a perfunctory manner, the reader never has a chance to reflect on the significance of what is going on. There is potential in the solo-seafaring premise of On the Edge but, ultimately, it fails to stay afloat.