The Line Tender is a book I probably wouldn’t have pulled off the shelf had it not been the August reading choice for my Mock Newbery Group. Neither the title nor the book flap blurb enticed me. A couple of things I wish I had known before I started reading it: (1) it includes the death of a child (not a spoiler)–I, personally, have a hard time with this element in some contexts; and (2) the meaning of the title. The author does eventually reveal that the “line tender” is a person on a rescue dive who watches the primary diver’s line to ensure his/her safety. Knowing the meaning of the title would have helped me organize the story a little better during the first third of the book, when I didn’t quite understand the through-line of the story.
Our main character is 12-year-old Lucy Everhart. Her mother, a marine biologist, died from a brain aneurysm when Lucy was seven. Her father is a rescue diver for the police. When we meet Lucy at the beginning of the story she is with her best friend, Fred, purchasing candy at the local store in Rockport, Massachusetts. A young boy runs in to announce that a great white shark has just been brought into the wharf. Lucy and Fred are working on a field guide as an extra credit science project over the summer and want to include the great white shark in their book so they rush to the wharf to see the sea creature.
Lucy’s mother was a shark expert and that night on the news, when they run the story about the current shark, they also play an old videotape of Lucy’s mother, speaking about sharks and her admiration for them. Lucy and Fred discover an old grant proposal of her mother’s about placing acoustic tags on sharks in order to collect census data on their population. When a second tragedy occurs over the summer Lucy uses this link she has discovered to her mother as a way to pull herself through the grief and anger and resulting confusion that loss always brings with it.
The Line Tender was a fairly quick read–more so than I originally anticipated. It is the debut novel of another Minnesota author so I wanted to love it. I didn’t dislike it. Grief and loss are difficult themes to tackle in novels; there are some deeply insightful and touching moments with Lucy as she tries to sort through her thoughts and emotions in the wake of her tragic loss. I just didn’t really connect with any of the characters or the story. I felt slightly held apart from them in a way I’m not used to when I read. (Admittedly, this may very well be due entirely to my own issues and have nothing to do with the book.) The theme of sharks is woven into the story in a way that succeeds from a plot perspective but doesn’t ever really bind the characters to the theme in more than a superficial way.
The Line Tender might be a good independent read for a middle grade reader who is interested in marine biology–sharks in particular. I would not recommend this as a read-aloud in a classroom, due to some word and subject choices that, while not inappropriate for the age group, might be difficult with multiple students at different maturity levels.
It’s hard not to compare The Line Tender with Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly, also published this year. Song for a Whale is less realistic in plot points and character behavior but is a more engaging story with a more successful blend of marine biology (in this case, whales) with the essence of the story itself. The Line Tender is milder in action and much more realistic in both its plot and the natural way it unfolds and the behavior of its characters, which also come across as genuine and believable. Whereas Song for a Whale deals mostly with the frustration inherent in the struggle for communication, The Line Tender deals with the difficult subject of grief and loss in a thoughtful and compassionate way.