Book Review: The Second Mother by Jenny Milchman

Looking for the freedom of a fresh start, Julie Weathers takes a job teaching in a one-room schoolhouse on a remote island in Maine. But as Julie takes on the challenge of teaching the island's children, she comes to suspect that she may have traded one place shrouded in trouble for another...

For me, the release of a new Jenny Milchman novel is an event. The story always battles the unique locations she uses for setting and this consistently makes for a great read. I am pleased to say that The Second Mother is no different. It starts in a small Adirondack town and then moves to an odd island off the coast of Maine.

The want-ad read:

Opportunity: Teacher needed for one-room-school-house on remote island in Maine. Certification in grades K-8 a must.

This posting could not have come at a better time for Julie Mason. She has been in a depressive funk due both to the breakdown of her marriage and the tragic loss of her young daughter. The two things are actually inter-related as many marriages fall apart after a tragedy like the loss of your only child.

Julie and David have been merely existing, not living, in the small Adirondacks Mountain town of Wedeskyull. Even though she has family members there and knows the town intimately, it is time for a change of scenery. Julie applies and makes it through the process all the way to a job offer. When she eventually tells David she makes it clear it was not him, she just missed their little girl Hedley too much. Plus, they both admitted they were pretty much done and David agreed to begin the divorce process.

Her integration to the new role on Mercy Island is handled by a small woman named Laura Hutchins. The island is really small, which should be alleged from the ad indicating a one-room-schoolhouse housing graded K-8. There are also no vehicles anywhere on the island. The chief industry is lobster fishing and the few families who have dominated this trade pretty much rule the island. Part of the job offer included a small home on the island with the promise of a terrific view and a short walk to the schoolhouse.

When Julie steps off the ferry boat from the mainland onto Mercy Island she finds that the other passengers disperse so quickly from the dock it’s as if they disappeared. She files this away in the back of her head as the first in a myriad of odd behavior from island residents. At least she took her dog Depot with her for the company and a life-line to her previous life. She gets a tour of the island by an overly enthusiastic young woman named Ellie. Their day traversing the island is ended by a bizarre event when a crazed woman comes bursting into Julie’s new home claiming her son is missing. It turns out the woman is the mother of eleven-year-old Peter Meyers. Peter has been acting strangely since the recent loss of his father. Julie goes with her instinct and, after introducing herself as the new schoolteacher, allows Peter to meet Depot which has the hoped-for calming effect.

Mind you, this is just the beginning of continued strange behavior featuring Peter Meyers, the rest of which I will leave you to enjoy on your own. Peter is also the grandson of the wealthiest family on the island, the Hempstead’s. They pull a lot of strings on Mercy Island, including deciding who would be teaching their grandson. Peter’s grandmother nicely threatens Julie even before she begins teaching. During the first few days of school, she is able to connect with most of the students with the only outliers being the one boy who has been bullied by everyone for years and Peter. When there is an incident with Peter injuring and nearly killing a seagull while the class is outdoors, Julie recognizes she is really going to have a problem with him.

Julie does all she can to try to make it on Mercy Island. She continues her friendship with Ellie and even has the beginning of a potential romance with the mysterious fisherman/handyman, Callum. Still, Peter and the Hempstead’s are going to be a tough mountain to climb. She decides to encourage all the students to pick a play to perform, utilizing her drama background, and they decide on an original musical re-telling of Rapunzel. There is also some alternative casting that she hopes will work for everyone involved when Peter is cast as Rapunzel. His grandmother is not pleased, but Peter seems to have found his niche. However, you don’t mess with Maryanne Hempstead who will stop at nothing to get her way and preserve the way of life they have created on Mercy Island.

The Second Mother has it all. There is enough psychological suspense to keep any thriller reader glued to their seat. Additionally, Milchman has devised another novel that reads like literary fiction with a story that touches on loss, motherhood, the past, and the true definition of family. Along the way, there are plenty of plot twists and surprises that include an action-filled ending that will result in some shocking revelations. Another winner from Jenny Milchman and one of the more intelligent novels in the summer of 2020.

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