Where The World Ends


Geraldine McCaughrean




Date Reviewed:

March 13, 2020

his is one of those books where the author sounds so authenticate it is easy to believe that McCaughrean must herself have traveled to a remote stony islands in the North Atlantic and spent some time killing sea birds for her survival. How else could she possibly know all these details of rocks and ropes and how lonely boys struggle to endure a year of isolation, cold and misery? An amazing amount of research that must have gone into writing this book. She must have traveled to the island Hirta, or some place quite similar, and interviewed people who make their living on the margins of civilization. An impressive book.

Where the World Ends is the tale of three men and nine boys who board a boat one August day and sail a few miles across the sea to the island called Warrior Stac. They are dropped off upon a rocky pinnacle that juts from the sea, devoid of greenery, but home to thousands of sea birds, nesting for the summer. These birds can be captured and killed for their meat, feathers, eggs and oil (some birds, called petrels, apparently have so much oil in their body from the fish that they eat, that they can be burned like candles!). The boat leaves the hunting party and sails away, it will be back in a few weeks when the bird harvest has ended.

But the boat never returns. The group is stranded. Winter is coming on, and the sea birds depart when the chicks are grown. Starvation looms.

The story is told from the point of view of Quilliam ("Quill"). Quilliam is older than most of the boys, but not yet a man. He apparently has had some schooling, because he can read. Quilliam has a special talent for storytelling. He tells his stories to give his comrades hope and encouragement, to pass the time, and to take the younger boys minds off of their predicament. But Quill's talk and encouragings run counter to the preachings of Mr. Cole, one of the three adult men - who fancies himself a priest. Quill finds himself outcast from the cave and the small community.

It is hard to tell when this story takes place, perhaps in the 18th century, or in the early part of the 19th century. A Great Auk (which the islanders call a garefowl), one of the last of its kind, wanders about Warrior Stac. The Great Auks went extinct in 1844, so the story takes place before then. Most of the boys devoutly believe in Catholicism, but they also believe in witches, omens and haunting spirits. As they grow weaker, their spirits also falter, and they fall prey to superstitions and wild beliefs.

Quilliam is the hero of this tale, he displays great courage in rescuing one of the men from despair and suicide, and saving some of the others from life threatening situations. But not everyone can be saved from the harsh situation. Quill dreams of a young woman, Murdina, who was visiting Hirta when the crew set sail for the Warrior Stac. Quill secretly had fallen in love with Murdina, but because the birding party has been stranded so long, Murdina has certainly returned to the mainland and Quill will never see her again. To comfort his lonely soul, Quill imagines that the Great Auk carries the spirit of Murdina, and that she is secretly watching over him. Quill displays great empathy in this story, he is a likeable young man.

This is a unique tale of survival. The story telling is authenticate, the plight is precarious, and the characters believable. Quill shines. The cover says that McCaughrean is a Michael L. Printz medalist, I wonder if she won it for this fine novel. (The end of the book explains that the events described in the novel are based upon true events; the afterward in the book explains that the actual outcome was sadder than what is portrayed in the book.)

ps: I just looked it up - McCaughrean won the Michael L. Printz award for White Darkness in 2008.