The Voyage of the Morning Light (US) / The Difference (CAN)

Written by Marina Endicott
Review by Waheed Rabbani

In 1911, twelve-year-old Kay and her older half-sister, Thea, take a sea voyage from Nova Scotia to the South Pacific islands. The merchant ship, Morning Light, is captained by Thea’s husband, Francis. Thea is on her honeymoon trip, while Kay is on board since her father, who ran a school for Indigenous children in Canada, has died. She also has nightmares following some frightening experiences at that residential school. Unfortunately, during a stopover in Eleuthera, Thea has a miscarriage. When they reach Micronesia, Thea, still grieving her loss, impulsively trades with some native people for an eight-year-old boy. Thea adopts him, “to save this one soul from starvation,” and names him Aren. While he seems content, he searches from the ship for his people. Although concerned, Kay is happy to treat Aren like her brother. They study and play together on board. However, years later in Nova Scotia, Aren faces social issues, and Kay helps him slay his demons.

Marina Endicott has skillfully used the writing tools of historical fiction to turn a real event into a vibrant narrative of two voyages from Canada to the South Seas. Endicott profusely describes incidents during the long journeys, the flora and fauna, sea creatures, life on the remote islands, and the hardships of the seafarers. While some readers might find these lengthy accounts tedious, the publisher’s book summary discloses a “crystallizing moment” that occurs nearly halfway into the plot, and which keeps us engrossed. At its heart, the novel examines the all-too-troublesome question of whether it is appropriate to uproot, forcefully or otherwise, young children from their native surroundings and bring them up in different conditions. Although the displacement is done to improve their well-being, most have to face discrimination afterward. This eloquent novel won the 2020 Robert Kroetsch City of Edmonton Book Prize. Highly recommended.