Golden MacDonald, photographed in 1934. Photo courtesy of the North Haven Historical Society, North Haven, Maine.
By Kate Ver Ploeg
From our August 2021 issue
There was a small island in the ocean.
Around him the winds have blown
And the birds were flying
And the tides went up and down on the shore.
For almost 50 years, the revival of the children’s classic The small island attributed these opening lines to a certain Golden MacDonald. In 1947, when the book’s illustrator, Leonard Weisgard, accepted the prestigious Caldecott Medal, he explained how “Golden MacDonald’s text came out of the water” surrounding “a real little island off the coast of Maine, owned by a group of other small islands called Vinalhaven. Between 1943 and 1956, Doubleday published half a dozen popular children’s books by Weisgard and MacDonald, including another Caldecott winner, Little Lost Lamb, in 1945. To a mid-century picture book enthusiast, Golden MacDonald was a brand almost as familiar as Dr. Seuss or Robert McCloskey.
But the real Golden MacDonald was a modest fisherman and handyman from Penobscot Bay, a longtime islander whose only contribution to children’s literature was to lend his name to his employer’s bohemian lover.
Margaret Wise Brown was 28 when she arrived in Vinalhaven in the summer of 1938, and immediately fell in love. “It’s a wonderful wild place,” she wrote to a mentor. “The only way to get here is to come with a lobster boat or fly by plane. I have been generating here with friends for a month. . . . But most of the ink poisoning pulse is gone for now. It’s wonderful to just know the importance of lying in the sun.
Aspiring publisher and author of children’s books, Brown escaped New York City each summer thereafter to write and revitalize himself on Vinalhaven. At first, she rented a cottage on Long Cove, where, in 1942, she wrote a poem about a little girl saying goodnight to objects in her bedroom. It was a precursor to a book she published five years later, and good night moon remains the work for which Brown is best known.
In 1943, she bought a quarry mansion abandoned for back taxes and named it Maison Unique. She reveled in his eccentricities and added them, framing windows like pictures and sawing off furniture legs to fit the low ceilings. Having no electricity or plumbing, she set up an open-air boudoir next to the outbuilding and poured wine and cheese into the well on labeled ropes. It is to the Unique House that Brown wrote The small island, inspired by a granite bump covered in waves that she admired through her window. She nicknamed it Starfish Island and watched it change with the changing tides, weather and seasons.
Weisgard was one of the many friends and collaborators who visited Brown on Vinalhaven. “In Maine,” he later told a biographer, “something in her would be released, and her face would change somehow, and she would become animated in a way that she was not elsewhere. “
For years, Margaret Wise Brown had a romance with fellow Vinalhaven summer resident Bill Gaston, a well-known lawyer, playwright and womanizer from a Boston family. When the two met in 1938, the keeper of Gaston’s property was a competent North Havener named Golden MacDonald. Brown stuck to her name as she searched for a pseudonym, which one publisher suggested distancing her picture books from her earlier work on slightly controversial text books. Golden MacDonald, she thought, acknowledging both his hair color and his Celtic heritage. She also liked that MacDonald’s nickname “Goldie” echoed hers, “Brownie,” which her New York friends had given her.
Goldie and Brownie have lived very different lives. Born in New York in 1910, Brown grew up in a wealthy New York family whose ancestors included running mate. Eleven years her senior and born in Vinalhaven, MacDonald came from a Scottish working-class family who immigrated to Penobscot Bay from Prince Edward Island in the late 1800s. Brown attended residential schools in the late 1800s. elite in Switzerland and Massachusetts and a college in Virginia. Outside of his Coast Guard service in World War II, MacDonald spent his life on the Fox Islands. Brash and passionate, Brown loved imported furs, flowers and cheeses. MacDonald is remembered as a constant presence by the water in a khaki uniform and a navy fisherman’s sweater, a man who spoke sparingly and with a hint of brogue.
MacDonald “was a heckuva scallop fisherman,” recalls his nephew, Peter MacDonald, and “a damn good guy.” He usually fished alone or offshore with his younger brother, Argyle. When MacDonald was nine, he and Argyle took out the family dory. The wind picked up and carried them out of the cove. A neighborhood search team found them stranded on Dogfish Island, just off Vinalhaven, their boat too laden with fish to row.
Later, during Prohibition, MacDonald and his brother reportedly poured rum, unloading spirits from ships at sea before heading to Rockland to transport summer residents who, knowingly or not, sat on boxes of the same liquor they would buy later.
In addition to fishing and looking after summer families, Goldie has worked for North Haven Casino, the island’s yacht club, servicing floats and delivering boats full of summer kids to the tidal pool. . To many he was a grandfather figure who patiently taught them to tie knots, hooks, and fish skins. “Everyone loved Uncle Goldie,” his niece Bodine Ames recalled in an interview with a local historian. “I have never heard a soul say anything bad about it.”
MacDonald’s life, like most lives, was remarkable only to the many people who knew and loved him. Yet the books Brown has published under his name have delighted and inspired generations of children. Her granddaughter, Kelly Wall-Olson, bemoans the family’s lack of knowledge about her grandfather’s relationship with Brown. He may have been one of the fishermen who regularly passed by the One House, knowing that Brown often sought out walks in the village – and that she had a morning habit of swimming.
We know MacDonald once came to Brown’s rescue, years after they met, in 1952. She and her fiance, Jim Rockefeller, were sailing in his flat-bottomed canoe when they got caught in a squall. As Rockefeller said, Brown continued to smoke his pipe even as the submerged dinghy began to sink. Fortunately, MacDonald arrived on the scene to retrieve them. As the fisherman dragged them aboard – Brown’s pipe still lit – Rockefeller remembers him joking: “Gawd, Maagrit, you look better wet than dry! “
Most of MacDonald’s family remember having copies of The small island spread out around their homes, but they say he rarely mentioned his borrowed fame. If someone else did? “He was just laughing a little,” Wall-Olson says. He owned a cat named Blackie, and while Brown probably never met him, MacDonald’s family like to imagine that Blackie inspired the black kitten in The small island, who learns that all the islands are connected under the sea, however separate they may be.
Margaret Wise Brown died after an appendectomy in 1952, when an impromptu kick from her hospital bed dislodged a blood clot. She was 42 years old. MacDonald lived and worked on the islands until a few years before his death, in 1977. And although most of Brown’s books on Golden MacDonald are out of print, his name has stuck on The small island until the early 1990s, when publishers decided that Brown’s name had become sufficiently bankable (by some estimates, good night moon has sold over 47 million copies). The small island turns 75 this year, and still a quintessential Maine favorite, a reassuring rumination of how each of us, through the seasons and changing storms, remains an integral part of the world.