Masina lives a lonely existence on a small island in the Pacific Ocean after being lost at sea in a storm. One day, she finds a special seashell that provides a connection with her former life and loved ones. The Magic Seashell is a longer picture book with blocks of text interspersed with colourful illustrations.
Despite Masina’s loneliness and lengthy isolation on the island, the story is not all doom and gloom. Our protagonist shows extraordinary resilience from the outset. She has built a hut for herself with walls of woven palm leaves, she tends a small garden, makes baskets and mats, and all manner of objects from the shells washed onto the beach. The tone is upbeat here, culminating in Masina’s discovery of a beautiful seashell that reflects the moon at night. She weaves a band so she can wear her “moon necklace” always. It is a quiet but deliberate link to her name Masina, which means moon, as we found out on the book’s opening page.
The narrative of Masina’s simple island lifestyle is interrupted by the arrival of a storm. This time, the storm is not a distant memory, but a vivid and violent onslaught: “Masina awoke and felt her hut shaken as large trees toppled and crashed to the ground. Heavy rain lashed the woven walls. She became afraid.” Again, as in the first storm, Masina loses everything, including her moon necklace. We are now halfway through the book and things couldn’t look worse. What next, I wondered?
Urale keeps us in suspense by cutting to another island far away. A little girl, also named Masina, is running along a beach with her brother, Fetu, when they spot a beautiful shell in the sand. They are alarmed when the shell sings their names, so they take it to their grandfather, also named Fetu. It’s all starting to fall into place for the reader by this point …
The magic seashell, obviously Masina’s special moon shell, is the driving force for the second half of the book. Masina’s voice sings through the shell to the villagers who gather outside Old Fetu’s fale (house), proving to them that she is alive. It is the shell that leads the villagers’ flotilla of canoes to the island where Masina is marooned. When the villagers see a figure lying motionless on the small island, the shell encourages and reassures them all – and the reader too: “Then the song from the seashell started again, its music soothing yet insistent.”
The glint of the seashell and sound of the songs coming from it catch Masina’s attention and help to pull her out of her daze. And it is the shell that Masina reaches and touches first before touching her husband’s hand. The use of the senses – sight, sound and touch – adds emotional depth to this moving scene of recognition and reunion between husband and wife.
The Magic Seashell has a mythical quality about it. As I read it, it reminded me of all those Greek stories I studied at school (in translation!) The illustrations have a similar feel to them, especially the vibrant double-page spread where Old Fetu stands outside his fale, holding the golden seashell aloft as he addresses the assembled villagers. The men are bare-chested, one dangles a catch of fish from his hand, and the backdrop is devoid of any evidence of modern-day living. The artwork throughout is bright and bold with stylised elements such as ‘corkscrew’ waves and patterned page borders. The focus is on the natural world and a traditional Pacific island lifestyle.
The Magic Seashell is a wonderful story of human resilience, the strength of community and the beauty of enduring love. It has universal appeal: younger readers will enjoy the colourful images and the broad storyline, while there is much to interest older readers too.
The Magic Seashell, by Makerita Urale, illustrated by Samuel Sakaria (Steele Roberts Ltd for the Pacific Education Resources Trust, 1999)
Makerita Urale was born on the Samoan island of Savai’i and emigrated to New Zealand in the 1970s with her family. She is a writer, playwright, theatre producer and documentary film director. Her work includes the highly-acclaimed play Frangipani Perfume, the first Pacific play written by a woman for an all-female cast. In 2010 she joined Creative New Zealand, as an arts advisor on Pacific Arts.
Samuel Sakaria was born in the Tokelau Islands in the South Pacific Ocean. He studied graphic design at Wellington Polytechnic, New Zealand. He has illustrated a number of books including Storm Island, Te Whenua Kauruki and Paper Pots: A Story from Nauru. He is an illustrator based in Wellington.