In Peter Dickinson’s The Gift Boat 10 year old Gavin lives with his mother and grandparents. His father is often away at sea for long periods, and his elder brother is in Edinburgh training to be a doctor. Since his mother and grandmother both have jobs, Gavin is looked after by his Granddad, and the two are very close. Granddad makes astonishingly detailed model boats which he sells, but the boat on which he’s currently working will be a gift for Gavin’s forthcoming 11th birthday. The story opens just over a month before Gavin’s birthday when Gavin and his Granddad, fishing in the harbour, see a seal who seems very tame. Granddad says it’s probably a Selkie, a seal person and explains to Gavin that Selkies often turn up in sailing families. Gavin wonders if there are any Selkies in his family since all the men in his family have had sea-related jobs. The next morning, Gavin is doing his homework in his Granddad’s room, so that he can have the rest of the weekend free. Granddad asks Gavin if he’s thought of a name for the boat yet, and Gavin suggests Selkie. Granddad tells him that he’d better ask the Selkies if it’s OK to name the boat that way, and then he abruptly collapses to the floor. Gavin thinks he’s having a heartattack and runs downstairs from the attic to ring for an ambulance. He rings and leaves messages for his mother and grandmother before he goes off to the hospital in the ambulance.
Granddad is taken to another hospital with a purpose-built stroke unit, since it was a stroke, not a heartattack that he had suffered. Gavin and his mother drive to the hospital in Aberdeen whilst Gavin’s grandmother goes in the ambulance. Gavin’s mother stops en route to pick up a pizza for them to eat since she’s not sure what the hospital will have, but unfortunately, Gavin drops the pizza box when he’s drenched by a passing vehicle. Gavin’s mother is talking to the doctor and his grandmother, who has been sitting with her husband goes to the toilet, so Gavin takes over sitting with him and holding Granddad’s hand. However, he faints from a lack of food and shock, but he is convinced Granddad had responded to Gavin, by squeezing his hand. As a result, Gavin persuades his mother to allow him to visit his Granddad every day; however, the trips after school and the worrying are wearing Gavin out, so his mother insists he can only go to the hospital three days a week, and the rest of the time he must try to live a normal life since, as his mother points out, he’s not the only one who might be able to reach Granddad through the stroke.
Gavin takes his Granddad’s latest copy of Model Boats to read to him and printouts of the emails Granddad’s friends have sent. He also takes his homework to do whilst the physio is working with Granddad. However he soon takes over doing the exercises with Granddad, allowing the physio to work with another patient. Whilst Gavin is doing the exercises with Granddad and talking to him, Gavin mentions the Selkie they both saw and he notices that Granddad responds by holding Gavin’s hand. The physio says that this is good, but it’s not enough; Granddad needs to respond in a more obvious and noticeable way if he’s to remain in the stroke unit once a month has passed since he was brought in, otherwise Granddad will be transferred back to the local hospital in Stonehaven, which does not have a specialised stroke unit. In desperation he decides to finish the model boat that his Granddad was to give him for his birthday, and he will take it into the hospital and put into his Granddad’s hands to give to him. This doesn’t prompt any response, so Gavin does the only other thing he can think of – he takes the model boat down to the harbour early the morning following his birthday, and sets it sailing and tells the Selkie it is his most precious gift and he wants his Granddad back more than he wants the boat. The day after that when he visits again, he spends time alone with his Granddad and he invokes the Selkie’s aid; suddenly Gavin finds himself in a strange place where he seems to have no body of his own but where he keeps seeing flashes of pictures. Eventually he realises that the Selkie has allowed his spirit to enter Granddad’s body so that he can find his Granddad’s spirit and help him to gain control of his body again. Gavin is worried, however, that one of the nurses or his mother will find him, with his body slumped over his Granddad’s, clutching his Granddad’s hand and pull them apart, because he knows that if the physical contact is broken, so will the spirit contact. Fortunately Gavin’s mother comes in and when she sees Gavin, she thinks he’s fainted again, as he did on the day that Granddad was admitted, and she stops the nurses from immediately pulling the two apart, so that Gavin has enough time to help his Granddad’s spirit to find his body again and regain at least some control. It’s enough to persuade the consultant to keep Granddad in the stroke unit, and although Gavin understands that his Granddad may never be back to his old self, he will at least regain some use of his body. The next day, he goes down to the harbour and his boat comes sailing back on the tide, and he knows that his “pact” with the Selkie is over.
I found this book incredibly moving, which may just have been my personal circumstances (I understood the intense emotional pressure that Gavin feels when he’s willing on his Granddad’s recovery), but I think it’s actually a tribute to Dickinson’s evocative writing.