Up from underneath comes a blue-black swell, a whale rising in a long arc. Kay waits, hovering in the difference between herself and the creature.

What is the difference between ourselves and other humans? Between human and animal? Where does that difference persist in our minds? These are the questions Marina Endicott explores in this sweeping, intoxicating novel set on the Morning Light, a barque from Nova Scotia sailing the South Pacific in 1912. Thea and Kay are half-sisters, separated in age by more than a decade. After the death of their stern father, head of a residential school in western Canada, the elder sister, Thea, returns east for her long-awaited marriage to a ship’s captain. She cannot abandon her younger sister, so Kay also embarks on a life-changing voyage around the world.

At the heart of The Difference is one crystallizing moment in Micronesia: Thea forms a bond with a young boy from one of the islands, and takes him as her own. The repercussions of this act reverberate through the novel—forcing Kay to examine her own assumptions about what is forgivable, and what is right. Taking inspiration from the true story of a small boy who was brought on board a Canadian sailing ship in the South Seas, Marina Endicott shows us a vanished world in all its wildness and wonder, and its darkness, prejudice, and difficulty too. She also brilliantly illuminates our own times through Kay’s preoccupation with the idea of “difference”—between people, classes, continents, cultures, customs, and species.

A breathtaking tour-de-force by one of our most celebrated authors, a writer with the astonishing ability to bring a past world to vivid life while revealing the moral complexity of our own.

In sailing through a wilderness of new sensations and wonders, vivid and strange, The Difference also takes on a deeper and more troubling past. As Kay works to understand how to be in the world, she asks questions that resonate to this day: what makes us human? How do we atone for unforgivable sins, and how do we make this right?

“They ended up buying the little boy for four pounds of tobacco. He didn’t know anything. When he saw stairs he started down head first on hands and knees. Of course, he had no manners either! He had to be taught.”

from Kathryn Ladd’s account of her mother’s purchase