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Book Review: Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly

Rather than adore your shell, you sought the love of those who ridiculed you. This is a great tragedy.

In the middle-grade reader Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly, Lalani lives on the island called Sanlagita, with her mother, her abusive step-father, and his horrible son. Her mother is a seamstress, a job held by people of lower status because if you prick your finger with a needle, for reasons no one understands, you can be struck with a terminal illness no one knows how to treat. Lalani spends her time helping her mother by running for wool thread that is allotted each day to the seamstresses. She escapes the darkness of her house as often as she can by visiting her friend Veyda’s house. At Veyda’s, there is still a lot of work to be done, but her mother tells stories, and Lalani loves stories, those about the distant island of Isa where the magical Fei Diwata lives, and, especially, those about Ziva, a village girl who long ago dared stow away on the ships that sailed, trying to reach Isa but never coming back.

Lalani of the distant seaThe social structure on Sanlagita (isn’t that a lovely word? Say it out loud and it clangs and lulls all at once) is like this. There is a menyoro, a leader who makes all of the rules. Everyone is assigned work and the village manages to survive because everyone does their work. The boys go to school, to learn basic things and how to build ships, but girls are just for running errands. Every night, everyone says benedictions, asking the mountain Kahna to stay sleeping and not destroy the village the next day. Everyone is forbidden to go to the mountain, because some sort of demon lives there.

Yet, one day Lalani tries to save a shek (the animals who make wool) who has wandered too close to the mountain. This sets off a series of events that she feels responsible for, so she sets out to try to fix them. She has all sorts of adventures that test her and push her to discover her own strengths.

The setting is so vivid, Sanlagita in a drought, the tropical island with its volcano, the trees, the sea, the island of Isa which is entirely different from Sanlagita. It is both beautiful and deadly, dangerous for everyone. “Nature is shifty,” the story tells us. “It takes advantage of how comfortable you are in your surroundings. Humans make the mistake of believing they know best, but nature is there to remind you, at precisely the wrong time, that nature was here first.” I don’t have a lot of experience on tropical islands, but this idea resonates with how I felt in Hawaii: everything was beautiful but if I wasn’t careful there were so many sources of damage. I don’t feel that way in my usual environment, so maybe it is just that difference, and maybe I need to be more aware because I do tend to just be comfortable, even on the edges of cliffs.

I loved this sweet book, which builds a whole mythology based on island tales that become wholly unique to the story. It is a book about finding your own version of courage and embracing and loving who you are, rather than who your society might want you to believe you are. In one of my favorite spots of the story, Lalani is crammed inside a hollow tree trunk with a friend she has made in her travels, Usoa. Usoa is bleeding and possibly dying, and she asks Lalani to tell her a story. “Tell me a sad story,” she says, and so Lalani—whose love of stories is one of her strengths—invents a sad story about Anya, a girl born with a shell on her back. She is ridiculed her whole life for her shell, until finally she finds someone who can remove it, thinking that then the villagers will love and accept her. They do not, so she throws her shell off a cliff and wanders her island, looking for another village to live in. She finally finds one where all of the occupants also have shells, but they won’t take her in because she has discarded her shell. This is the sad part: that if Anya could have embraced and carried her uniqueness, she would’ve eventually found her place.

I don’t read a lot of middle-grade books, partly because I don’t work in the Children’s department and so I have less knowledge about them. Partly because even the really good ones sometimes feel too facile in their resolutions. (This is not a criticism; they are consistent with their audience.) But this book is one I think anyone of almost any age could love. It is beautifully written, with each section starting with a new myth or fable, challenging the reader to imagine she is one of the island’s inhabitants, and Lalani is such a great character. She grows and changes with the story, but in ways that felt authentic.

Isn’t that crazy: here I am, almost 50, but touched by a character written for young girls to relate to. But that story she made up for Usoa…gah, it hit me. I think that in some sense, everyone is like Anya, with a part of them that feels unique but also makes it so they don’t quite fit in. I haven’t broken my shell or had it removed—but I do often feel like I am wandering, just trying to find my tribe. I hope my shell is intact if I ever do manage to find them.

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