There was a little Island in the ocean. Around it the winds blew And the birds flew And the tides rose and fell on the shore.
For nearly 50 years, the cover of the children’s classic The Little Island attributed these opening lines to one Golden MacDonald. In 1947, when the book’s illustrator, Leonard Weisgard, accepted the prestigious Caldecott Medal, he explained how “Golden MacDonald’s text grew right up out of the water” surrounding “a real little island off the coast of Maine, belonging to a group of other little islands called Vinalhaven.” Between 1943 and 1956, Doubleday published a half dozen popular children’s books by Weisgard and MacDonald, including another Caldecott honoree, Little Lost Lamb, in 1945. To a mid-century devotee of picture books, Golden MacDonald was nearly as familiar a brand as Dr. Seuss or Robert McCloskey.
But the real Golden MacDonald was an unassuming Penobscot Bay fisherman and handyman, a lifelong islander whose only contribution to children’s literature was lending his name to his employer’s bohemian lover.
Margaret Wise Brown was 28 when she first came to Vinalhaven in the summer of 1938, and she fell immediately in love. “This is a wonderful wild place,” she wrote to a mentor. “The only way to get here is to come with a lobsterman or fly in a plane. Have been generating here with friends for a month. . . . But most of the ink poisoning impulse has gone away for the moment. It is wonderful to just know the importance of lying in the sun.”
A budding editor and author of children’s books, Brown escaped New York City every summer thereafter to write and rejuvenate on Vinalhaven. At first, she rented a cottage on Long Cove, where, in 1942, she wrote a poem about a little girl saying good night to the objects in her room. It was a precursor to a book she published five years later, and Goodnight Moon remains the work for which Brown is best known.
In 1943, she bought an abandoned quarry-master’s house for back taxes and christened it the Only House. She delighted in its eccentricities and added to them, framing windows like pictures and sawing off furniture legs to accommodate the low ceilings. Having no electricity or plumbing, she installed an open-air boudoir next to the outhouse and sank wines and cheeses into the well on labeled ropes. It was at the Only House that Brown wrote The Little Island, inspired by a wave-lapped granite hump she admired out her window. She nicknamed it Starfish Island and watched as it changed with the tides, the weather, and the shifting seasons.
Weisgard was one of many friends and collaborators who visited Brown on Vinalhaven. “In Maine,” he later told a biographer, “something about her would be liberated, and her face somehow changed, and she would become animated in a way she wasn’t elsewhere.”
For years, Margaret Wise Brown carried on a romance with another Vinalhaven summer resident, Bill Gaston, a lawyer, playwright, and well-known womanizer from an upper-crust Boston family. When the two met, in 1938, the caretaker of Gaston’s property was a capable North Havener named Golden MacDonald. Brown latched upon his name while in search of a pseudonym, something a publisher suggested to distance her picture books from her earlier work on some mildly divisive texbooks. “Golden MacDonald,” she thought, acknowledged both her hair color and her Celtic heritage. She also liked that MacDonald’s nickname, “Goldie,” echoed her own, “Brownie,” which her New York friends had given her.
Goldie and Brownie lived starkly different lives. Born in New York City in 1910, Brown was raised in a wealthy New York family whose ancestors included vice presidential nominees. Eleven years her senior and born on Vinalhaven, MacDonald came from a family of Scottish laborers who migrated to Penobscot Bay from Prince Edward Island in the late 1800s. Brown attended elite boarding schools in Switzerland and Massachusetts and college in Virginia. Outside of his Coast Guard service during World War II, MacDonald spent his life on the Fox Islands. Impetuous and passionate, Brown loved furs, flowers, and imported cheeses. MacDonald is remembered as a steady waterfront presence in a khaki uniform and navy fisherman’s sweater, a man who spoke sparingly and with a hint of a brogue.
MacDonald “was a heckuva scallop fisherman,” remembers his nephew, Peter MacDonald, and “a helluva nice guy.” He usually fished alone or offshore with his younger brother, Argyle. When MacDonald was nine, he and Argyle took out the family’s dory. The wind breezed up and blew them out of the cove. A neighborhood search party found them beached on Dogfish Island, just off Vinalhaven, their boat too heavy with fish to row back.
Later, during Prohibition, MacDonald and his brother purportedly ran rum, unloading the spirits from offshore boats before heading to Rockland to ferry summer residents who, knowingly or not, sat upon boxes of the same liquor they would later buy.
Besides fishing and caretaking for summer families, Goldie worked for North Haven Casino, the island’s yacht club, maintaining floats and delivering boatloads of summer children to the tidal swimming pool. For many, he was a grandfatherly figure who patiently taught them to tie knots and bait hooks and skin fish. “Everyone loved Uncle Goldie,” his niece Bodine Ames recalled in an interview with a local historian. “I never heard a soul say anything bad about him.”
MacDonald’s life, like most lives, was remarkable only to the many who knew and loved him. Yet the books that Brown published under his name have delighted and inspired generations of children. His granddaughter, Kelly Wall-Olson, laments how little the family knows about her grandfather’s relationship with Brown. He may have been one of the fishermen who regularly cruised past the Only House, knowing that Brown often sought rides into the village — and that she had a morning habit of skinny-dipping.
We know that MacDonald once came to Brown’s rescue, years after they met, in 1952. She and her fiancé, Jim Rockefeller, were sailing her flat-bottomed dinghy when they were caught in a squall. As Rockefeller has told it, Brown continued to smoke her pipe even as the swamped dinghy began to sink. Fortunately, MacDonald arrived on the scene to fish them out. 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 relatives remember having copies of The Little Island shelved around their houses, but they say he rarely mentioned his borrowed fame. If anyone else did? “He’d just kind of laugh,” Wall-Olson says. He did own a cat named Blackie, and although Brown probably never met it, MacDonald’s family likes to imagine that Blackie inspired the black kitten in The Little Island, who learns that all islands are connected under the sea, no matter how separate they appear.
Margaret Wise Brown died after an appendectomy in 1952, when an impromptu can-can kick from her hospital bed dislodged a blood clot. She was 42. MacDonald lived and worked on the islands until a few years before his death, in 1977. And while most of Brown’s Golden MacDonald books went out of print, his name remained on The Little Island until the early 1990s, when publishers decided Brown’s name had become sufficiently bankable (by some estimates, Goodnight Moon has sold more than 47 million copies). The Little Island turns 75 this year, and it’s still a quintessential Maine favorite, a reassuring rumination on how each of us, through changing seasons and storms, remains an integral part of the world.