Geraldine McCaughrean’s Where the World Ends is a harrowing survival story based on an actual 18th-century event that occurred on St. Kilda, a remote island off the coast of northern Scotland. The Printz Award-winning author explains why she did not go to the island in order to research her book.
I’d like to sleep one night on the peak of Conachair—not because the clouds would be within arm’s reach; not because its cliffs plunge such a distance, or the fulmars nest there in spring, or because on a clear day you can see as far as the rim of the world. No. I want to sleep on Conachair because people who do reputedly wake blessed with the gift of poetry. That’s St. Kilda for you: spectacle, wildlife and a lick of magic.
Though how would I know? I haven’t been there myself.
I rarely visit the settings of my books. I like to set them in exotic locations (Madagascar, Antarctica, Mongolia) and usually in the past. To go to most of them would cost more than a book could earn. And my research rejoices in pointing out all the poisonous plants, razor ice, flies, cyclones, crocodiles, stench. . . . Besides, the most intrepid tour guide could never take me to 19th-century Oklahoma or 14th-century France. St. Kilda, though as local as Scotland, is still the most remote archipelago of the British Isles. So I let my imagination do the traveling.
Daughter gave me Judith Schalanski’s perfect Atlas of Remote Islands. We both devoured it. Given a chance to go to St. Kilda, Daughter came home extolling its marvels and laden with books—which I naturally set about reading. So many stories and anecdotes begging to be turned into a novel!
I was most gripped by one scantly recorded event in 1727: A group of men and boys were rowed over to the tallest of the sea stacs—Stac an Armin—on a fowling trip. Inexplicably, no one came to pick them up again. They were marooned on a bleak spike of rock rising sheer from the sea, not knowing why, as the weeks turned to months and the summer died.
The reference to this was one and a half lines in an 18th-century document. Perfect! A flimsy trellis of fact up which to grow story. Famous events in history have all been plundered by dozens of authors already. But where the cast of characters are nameless and unchronicled, an author is freer to invent.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Where the World Ends.
The setting of Where the World Ends was bound to shape the novel. Apparently, the waters surrounding Kilda are wonderfully clear and full of life. The waves are unpredictable and not to be counted beyond eight, for the ninth serves up a black depression called the Kilda Gloom. Basking sharks cruise by. Seals swim through the perpendicular architecture of submerged rock archways. Sometimes forests of lightning stand between sky and sea—the only trees the islanders ever saw. Stac an Armin rears up like a breeching whale; ledges and overhangs bustle with nesting birds, the gannets sitting with their big feet resting on their eggs. There are puffins by the million. The passing of the seasons is marked by the coming and going of the different birds. And the wind never stops blowing.
In a nearby museum, I see a storm-petrel lantern—a bird threaded through with a wick, all set to be lit like a candle and burned down to its feet. And seeing it, I know at once that my stranded boys are going to use such lanterns as, little by little, their own lives burn down toward extinction.
My first instinct was to have the boys create an ideal society while waiting for the angels to take them up to heaven. But it failed, for want of those vital ingredients: tension, adventure, peril. The text grew darker, older, begged for female protagonists. But everything seemed possible with the help of those forgotten boys.
I tell myself that, without its inhabitants, I would find St. Kilda an empty, abandoned place. But those part-pagan St. Kildans would tell me their souls still inhabit the rocks, streams, churchyards, roofs, the bottom of wells, the ledges of cliffs. They are snagged like sheep’s wool in every crevice. They fly like banners from every crag. I would like to go there.
But me? Who gets seasick on the park pond? Even the Kildans were afraid of their unpredictable piece of ocean. And haven’t I frightened myself enough during the writing of it, hanging from ropes, swamped by giant waves, attacked by blackbacks and clinging to cliffs in search of eggs, omens or villains? Let others walk the Great Glen, climb the swelling hills and sail by the foam-ringed sea stacs.
Ah, but to sleep one night on the summit of Conachair and wake up a poet! One day, maybe . . .