Review: From Island Girl to National Hero

“From Island Girl to National Hero: The Life Story of Sybil Ione McLaughlin” tells the worthy tale of Cayman National Hero Sybil McLaughlin, an important figure in local history. 

The book was written by Heather R. McLaughlin – no relation to Miss Sybil herself or her daughter-in-law Heather J. McLaughlin – and is surely a worthy undertaking; written clearly, lucidly and simply. 

“From Island Girl to National Hero” is a scrupulous account – organized on chronological principles – of the life and times of “Miss Sybil,” a vibrant, startling, even outstanding example of singular determination, lifelong perseverance, unshakable conviction and humble ambition. 

Early days  

The tale begins with her unassuming August 1928 Mobile, Alabama, birth to master mariner Charles and Cayman Brac housewife Lottie Morton. Within two years, however, Miss Sybil, sister Elizabeth and brother Charles lose their father to an unnamed illness, forcing the family to return to Cayman, moving in with relatives in South Sound. 

As if the paternal death and subsequent upheaval were not sufficiently disturbing, mother Lottie quickly discovers she cannot find work, so returns to the U.S., leaving her children behind, taking only newborn brother James with her. 

The impact on the children of these enormous events is simply chronicled: “Elizabeth, Charles and Sybil adapted quickly and happily to their new circumstances.” 

“The first couple of years passed pleasantly for the children, with the two aunts stepping in and giving them the love, affection and guidance their mother could no longer provide,” writes author McLaughlin, moving on to family anecdotes and daily routines. 

The 1932 hurricane and a move to Nicaragua 

The story moves to the 1932 hurricane, still a Cayman milestone, still the most powerful in the islands’ history, eclipsing even 2004’s Hurricane Ivan. 

Author McLaughlin tells of the storm in 10 colorful paragraphs, among the best in the book. 

Another wrenching change beset Miss Sybil when her Aunt Ella, visiting from her Bluefields, Nicaragua, home, removed the 4-year-old from her family in South Sound to Central America, where the pair lived in a hotel run by Ella’s brother James. 

The motivation for the move is unexplained: “It is not clear why she made this decision,” the author writes, although she devotes a paragraph to speculation. 

McLaughlin concludes, “young Sybil enjoyed the novelty of living in a hotel and all of the hustle and bustle involved in guests arriving and leaving.” 

Miss Sybil spends almost four years in Bluefields, before Aunt Ella abruptly returns her to Cayman. 

From island girl to National Hero 

The history proceeds: Miss Sybil grows up, attends George Town Primary, returns to Nicaragua to graduate secondary school, returns to Cayman, finds work in the civil service, marries husband Delworth, bears sons Christopher and Gordon, obtains training certificates in secretarial skills and moves ever deeper into government administration. 

As Miss Sybil’s professional responsibilities expand, she invariably finds them “interesting,” “challenging” and “enjoyable,” no matter the circumstances. 

The hardest part of the narrative – and where author McLaughlin almost exclusively addresses matters of personal pain, disorientation and grievous loss – is the sudden 1987 death of Delworth McLaughlin from congestive heart failure. 

Miss Sybil’s accomplishments are considerable – and reasonably detailed by author McLaughlin. We learn of Miss Sybil’s growing professional acumen; her voracious reading about governance and Parliamentary procedure; her growing leadership in the Caribbean, Commonwealth and Cayman Parliamentary fora; her role in the 1959 award to women of the right to vote and subsequent appointment as the first clerk of the Legislative Assembly; the 1976 founding of the Business and Professional Women’s Club; her 1982 booklet “150 Years of Parliamentary Government”; her 1991 appointment as the first Speaker of the House; and, ultimately, her 1996 unanimous designation by Parliament as Cayman’s second – and only living – National Hero, two years after the initial honor went to James Bodden. 

Interspersed throughout the text are 32 pages comprising 60 pictures. The best section, however, comes in one extended paragraph on page 128, quoting from Miss Sybil’s 1985 letter to a friend. Reflecting on the serenity of walking the beaches of East End, she vindicates the book’s “island girl” moniker: “For the past three months we have not been able to do much swimming. It is delightful to walk on the seashore when the waves are high and changing colors. We get a lot of seashells and other drifts that come in, a lot of lumber, etc. it is amazing what one can find on the seashore after heavy seas.” 

Sybil McLaughlin and the author, Heather R. McLaughlin.
Sybil McLaughlin and the author, Heather R. McLaughlin.