Hope in a desolate coming-of-age story

Monday, January 13, 2020 - 5:14pm

Among coming-of-age stories, “Where the World Ends” by Geraldine McCaughrean is a bleak example. Nine boys and three men are stranded on what is essentially a large outcropping of rocks called the Warrior Stac, off the coast of their remote home in the British Isles. 

This part is true — there was a group of people stranded on a birding trip in the mid-eighteenth century — but the history is more an inspiration for McCaughrean than a factual base. Quilliam, the fictional main character, is a young teenage boy who, at the outset of the novel, is excited to gather birds from the Stac. His excitement quickly sours as the group is mysteriously stranded with no boat from the mainland to come pick them up at the end of their journey. 

The premise is clearly depressing, and the plot makes it seem like the book would be a chore to consume, leaving the reader with a vague sense of existential doom. Strangely, even after brutal depictions of violence, death, banishment and hunger, an enduring hope prevails at the novel’s conclusion. The boys themselves, as well as the birds that they hunt and rely on for survival, are symbols of perseverance.  

McCaughrean circumvents the possible problem of a tiringly masculine book as Quill learns early on in their ordeal that one of the other boys, John, is not a boy at all. What follows is a conflicted handling of gender pronouns as Quill tries to keep John’s secret for her own safety, while still acknowledging the gender identification she revealed to him. Meanwhile, John herself struggles with a complicated identity. She was pretending to be a boy at the behest of her mother, because she had never borne the son her husband wanted, so John “had always felt guilty since birth, after all, for not being a boy.” She knows she does not want to change her name or her personality, however — when one of the boys says he could never marry a John, she replies, “You can and you shall! ... I canna be doing with a new name.” John’s identity adds a layer of gender politics to the new society that formed on the Stac. When the other boys try to exclude her from meetings on the basis of sex, she reminds them that she was included for many months when they thought she was a boy. Her very existence forces the boys to reconsider their traditional views of gender amid a survival situation. 

McCaughrean also deftly balances nature imagery and character description. She describes the Stac and its birds as beautiful, while still capturing the stark and unforgiving nature of the rocks on which the boys survive for nine months. In the beginning, when hope is abundant on the Stac, the imagery is softer and more colorful — “The sunsets were feathery and pink. The brief nights were spark-filled with stars.” By the end of the book, when the Stac is no longer just an exciting symbol of manhood but also a bleak reminder of mortality, the descriptions become much darker: Quill is “impaled on the tip of a giant claw and held up close to the sky for cloud-beasts to squint at.” 

McCaughrean’s writing style transparently follows Quill’s feelings throughout, which not only strengthens the plot, but also helps her prose serve the overall emotional purpose of the novel. Even at the most desperate times, Quill retains a sense of wonder at the beauty of the Stac and an appreciation for the birds on it that give him life. Alongside Quill’s changing perceptions of his situation, the novel’s descriptions of nature shift from an innocent portrait of beauty to a more nuanced acknowledgement of the danger and brutality that comes with that beauty.  

Several parts of the boys’ experience on the Stac makes it bearable. Quill almost obsesses over a girl named Murdina whom he met briefly on his home island. She came to his island from the mainland to teach the boys more about reading and writing, which is part of the reason why Quill felt so connected to her — to him, she represented education and storytelling. Quill is deemed “Keeper of Stories” because of his penchant for creating fantastical tales about the world around him that keep the other boys optimistic. Even on the Stac, the most desolate of places, he takes comfort in “collect[ing] words.” When Cane’s Bible is torn apart and the pieces go flying into the wind, Quill turns his literary eye on the situation and says the pages are “seeding the ledges and crags with words” that could give the boys “signs, warnings, encouragement.” In the darkest hours on the Stac, when everything seems hopeless, Quill’s eternal faith in the power of words is heartening to the other boys and to the reader.  

Quill’s storytelling streak gets him in trouble sometimes, like when it comes to one of the adults stranded with the boys, Col Cane. Cane represents the oppressive force of religion gone wrong, as he appoints himself minister of the group despite having no authority to do so. When Quill tells a story Cane thinks is too “pagan,” Cane accuses him of being a witch and he is banished, though not before being literally stoned by the other boys at the direction of the “minister.” Gradually, the boys begin to disregard Cane, and by extension adults and organized religion, in favor of their own freedom and ideas.  

Despite the despair of being separated from everything they know, the boys experience a remarkable degree of freedom on the Stac away from structured authority and society. This is perhaps the most important part of their coming-of-age story — they have an unprecedented amount of freedom that allows them to find themselves. On a lonely rock outcropping, “every boy is some manner of a king.