Each summer, from the time I was 13 and into my twenties, I found myself on an island: Dune Island, populated by the kind of people who own summer homes and the kind of people who worked for summer homeowners. It's the setting of Taking The Ferry Home by Pam Conrad, a New York-born writer. I stumbled upon the book on one of my regular trips to the library in the next town over, drawn in by its almost mysterious cover: one girl with a faraway look sits on the grass in the foreground. Another stands at a distance in the background with the skirt of her dress blowing in the wind, a pristine Cape Cod-style house and shadowy trees behind her. To my thirteen year old self, the cover echoed with loneliness. It was electric with sorrow – I could just feel it – and it struck a chord with me. I had to read it.
It begins with a girl named Alison who has elected to join her father at a cottage he's rented as a writer's getaway – he's a novelist – and on her first night, she sneaks into the neighbors' pool. It's their summer home and Alison assumes they won't be arriving until later, so she can take one quick dip. There she meets Simone, their daughter, who is “beautiful, completely beautiful, and she wasn't even nice.” Their encounter leaves Alison “choked with jealousy,” but as the story goes, the rich girl gets what she wants and what Simone wants is for she and Alison to be friends. So begins the tale of a very “fragile friendship,” as the book's bright green back-cover declares.
Simone Silver is not a one-dimensional character, though – not the prototypical rich girl in the least. In fact, when I look back at all the times I've read Taking The Ferry Home, I am struck by Simone as the character whom I feel the most compassion for and kinship with. She's many-faceted: ravishing, privileged and yet, haunted by a traumatic event from her childhood. She reads Tarot cards and makes bracelets of shells, listens to Springsteen (even now, when I hear “Dancing In The Dark,” I think of it as her song). Darkly, quietly troubled characters have often bewitched me in a way that your run-of-the-mill dysfunctional protagonist could not quite pull off. Conrad manages to create a rich, engrossing character who mostly lives in her own head (something I've been trying to manage for close to a decade to little avail). I wanted to know Simone, let her read my fortune and string up shells for me.
The water was a character all its own. It churns, black and murky, beneath the ferry that takes Ali and Simone around Dune Island. The first summer I read it, I dreamed of being on that island – that island, with all its secrets and sadness. I dreamed of water and even had a bookmark with a picture of foamy waves lapping at the sand.
For me, my real passion for books – the kind of books I read now – begins with Taking The Ferry Home. Pam Conrad died of breast cancer in 1996, at the age of 48, but this one of her many books for children and young adults transformed my life. It will always remain in my list of favorites because it's one of those that formed who I am and how I want to write.