“Scar Island” is the third book by Dan Gemeinhart, but it follows his formula of a boy facing what appear to be insurmountable challenges. In this story, Jonathan Grisby is sent to Slabhenge Reformatory School for Troubled Boys, a correctional facility built, similarly to Alcatraz, on an island in the middle of the ocean . Scar Island consists of the crumbling, depressing old building that looks like a fortress and features a veritable maze of passageways, cells, and abandoned rooms.
Although there aren’t many other boys there, some are truly terrible, while others are not. It seems apparent almost from the beginning that Jonathan is one of the smartest boys on the island, while another boy, Sebastian, is the bully who wants to be in charge. There is also Benny, who is the head warden’s pet and delights in small cruelties.
The adults who run the facility are certainly disgusting human beings. They feast on delicious foods while giving the boys porridge and scraps. They force the boys to clean, cook, and work constantly. There is no education going on. Scar is like a medieval prison or a scene from “Oliver,” with the orphans begging for a bit more gruel.
So when a freak storm kills all the adults, the children are thrilled. They can’t wait for the first boat to come so they can return to their families. But when one child suggests they stay there, in charge of their own lives, things change.
It quickly becomes “Lord of the Flies” at Scar Island. And while the biggest bully, Sebastian, is the one in charge, he respects Jonathan, whose quick thinking has saved them several times. Jonathan, for his part, doesn’t really care what happens to them. He is hiding a secret that he dreads the others knowing about. It’s a secret about how he ended up at the facility. And it’s a secret that Gemeinhart unwraps slowly over the course of the story.
One of Gemeinhart’s many strengths is that his characters are multi-dimensional. Except for the very evil adults who all die quickly, most of the boys are not all good or bad. And Jonathan, in particular, is a tortured soul. The glimpse Gemeinhart gives into his relationship with his parents and his sister through the letters Jonathan writes home and receives from them is evidence of the heartbreak that Jonathan is feeling.
A mysterious librarian, a domesticated, bred-for-generations rat, and other quirky characters add a touch of whimsy to this touching story about finding forgiveness for oneself and compassion for those who don’t appear, at first glance, to merit it.
This would be a great classroom pick for fifth grade through eighth grade classes. Rich discussions could be had about character traits, friendship, family, and making mistakes. The story is also rich in examples of how things aren’t always what they appear to be.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Scholastic Books, the publisher, for review purposes.