In Print : Honey Boat
The Honey Boat by Polly Burroughs, illustrated by Garrett Price, republication by Schiffer Publishing Ltd. 43 pages. $14.99
The formula is simple: Combine a strong and believable story with interesting characters, a worthy message, authentic details, and the sort of succinct descriptions that inspire mental images in young readers. The result, in the case of Edgartown author Polly Burroughs, is "The Honey Boat," the sort of book that deserves to be read and reread.
A Junior Literary Guild selection, "The Honey Boat," was first published by Little Brown in 1968. It is one of the dozens of carefully crafted books by Ms. Burroughs that includes "Zeb, Celebrated Schooner Captain of Martha's Vineyard," "Martha's Vineyard Houses and Gardens," "A Guide to Martha's Vineyard," and "Eisenstaedt: Martha's Vineyard."
Set in Edgartown harbor, "The Honey Boat" (named after the Navy term for garbage boats) tells of Ellie, a crusty no-nonsense woman whose daily morning routine during the Island's summer season begins with feeding the no-name gull who follows her in her ancient catboat Dauntless. She then stops to pick up her young helper, Cindy, who's spending the summer on her family's schooner in the harbor, and chugging along from boat to boat, completes the task of collecting each one's trash bags that will eventually be taken to the dump. Ellie demands strict compliance from the boaters.
"Garbage Boat!" Ellie called out.
"How much does it cost?" asked the captain.
"If I want your money I'll say so. And it don't come in smelly paper bags. Are you goin' to hand her over or stand there? I got a heap of work to do."
"Money! Humph! More fancy trimmin' on that boat than a Sunday bonnet and he don't know nothin' 'bout keeping a harbor clean. That figures," Ellie grumbled, while the skipper went below and returned with several bags.
It is all there, the sounds and the sights: white captains' houses, the On Time carrying people and cars to and from Chappaquiddick, the church steeples, the yacht club, and both the considerate and the thoughtless boaters who occupy the harbor.
But what makes this young reader book so distinctive is its tone and delivery. It respects the readers' intelligence, employing boating terms and vocabulary in a straightforward manner. The text, clear and easily understood, does not compromise in favor of the familiar or digress to offer additional explanations or definitions. Some characters in the book are flawed and fallible.
In the same manner, Ms. Burroughs created Ellie, based on Islander Elenore Doyle, whom she knew. In a recent phone conversation, Ms. Burroughs laughed as she recounted several stories about Ms. Doyle who preferred to be referred to as a "sanitary engineer." Married four times, Ms. Doyle was assertive and feisty, and reveled in having her story told in a book.
The character of Ellie brings great regard and importance to a job some might consider menial, a role some might think would be more suited to a man. And when met with carelessness or disrespect, Ellie fights back with boldness that, while not polite, reads true to character.
When a skipper neglects the proper disposal of his refuse, she dumps bags of garbage on his deck. Take that.
First published 40 years ago, the book is ahead of its time in its theme of ecology and conservation, and in the liberated person of its heroine.
The story has reason, logic, and fluency. There is mystery - when people are getting sick - and suspense - when Ellie does not report for work, but without moralizing, a solution is found that celebrates a caring community.
Ms. Bourroughs needs not exaggerate to provide drama or to make her point. Young readers can trust the events and the reactions that result.
The book is illustrated by Garrett Price, a comic strip artist and, during the 1920s, a magazine illustrator whose drawings appeared in magazines such as Life and The New Yorker. His line drawing illustrations are uncomplicated and literal - dated, by today's standards, but still effective.
Ms. Burroughs, who will not reveal her age, has two new books in the works, and plans to republish two others. She said she intends to continue writing for at least five more years, before age catches up with her, but declares herself delighted with the renewed enthusiastic response to "The Honey Boat."
"The Honey Boat," is available at Edgartown Books.