The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter

Written by Hazel Gaynor
Review by Helene Williams

Grace Darling loves life on Longstone Island, in Northumberland, England, where she helps her father with lighthouse duties at night and collects specimens of sea life during the day, when she’s not helping with household chores. In 1838, lighthouses are invaluable to mariners, and Grace is serious about her commitment, rather than dreaming about becoming someone’s wife on the mainland. Early on the morning of September 7, 1838, Grace spots figures huddled at the base of a neighboring island after a wicked storm; she and her father battle wind and waves to row out and rescue these shipwreck survivors. Grace’s bravery changes life at the lighthouse, as she becomes a sought-after celebrity.

One hundred years later, pregnant nineteen-year-old Matilda Emmerson leaves Ireland for Newport, Rhode Island, to live with a distant relative, Harriet, who is a lighthouse keeper. One of Matilda’s few possessions is a locket, with Victorian-era portraits of unknown relatives standing in front of a lighthouse. The stories of Grace and Matilda slowly unfold and come together in successive chapters as these young women discover sometimes-painful truths about themselves and confront the mores of their times, especially in terms of relationships, both familial and sensual.

Gaynor’s narrative seamlessly flows between the eras and the women, chronicling their longing, their pain, and their quiet triumphs. Historical details of northern England and Rhode Island are spot-on, from clothes to house construction. Secondary characters are drawn with equal attention to detail, allowing readers to see into the lives of everyone from Grace’s sister, to the Duchess of Northumberland, to Mrs. O’Driscoll, Matilda’s escort across the Atlantic. The weather itself is a character and narrative catalyst. Based on the real life of Grace Darling and two fierce storms, Gaynor’s tale is both heartbreaking and captivating.