Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Book Review: "The Marsh King's Daughter" by Karen Dionne

Helena and her parents lived an isolated life in a cabin on marshland in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. They had no electricity, no creature comforts, but Helena learned so much from her father—how to hunt; how to shoot; how to kill, dress, and cook an animal; how to appreciate nature and the outdoors.

She never understood why her mother always seemed so afraid of her father, although she knew he hurt her from time to time, and while he punished Helena and sometimes taught her very painful lessons, she still idolized him, and wanted to be just like him.

When she was 12 she finds out that her father kidnapped her mother when she was a teenager, and has kept her captive for 14 years. Helena was the product of this abduction. Although she is still too young to fully grasp the implications of this discovery, and is torn between still wanting to stay with him, and escaping a man she knows has the potential to be savagely violent.

"Most of the time when I look back at the way I was raised, I'm able to view things fairly objectively. Yes, I was the daughter of a kidnapped girl and her captor. For twelve years, I lived without seeing or speaking to another human being other than my parents. Put like that, it sounds pretty grim. But that was the hand I was dealt, and I needed to call a spade a spade if I was ever going to move forward..."

Years later, Helena's past is a secret from everyone, and in many ways, she is miles away from the girl she was when she was 12. She has a loving husband, two young daughters, and a business making artisan jams and jellies from the fruit that grows near her Upper Peninsula home. At times the niceties of social convention she learned late in life chafe her, and she must escape to the solitude and nature she cherished so much as a child. But despite her odd idiosyncrasies, her husband has no idea of her lineage.

And then, some 20 years after her escape from the marsh, she hears on the news that a prisoner has escaped from his maximum security confinement, killing two guards, and is headed toward the marshland. Her father. Suddenly Helena's life is wide open, much to her husband's surprise, and she realizes that her father is headed her way. She must do what her father trained her all those years ago: find him and capture him, before he harms others, before he destroys her family and the life she has made.

"The truth is, sometime between the officers' first question and when the door closed behind them, I realized that if anyone is going to catch my father and return him to prison, it's me. No one is my father's equal when it comes to navigating the wilderness, but I'm close. I lived with him for twelve years. He trained me, taught me everything he knows. I know how he thinks. What he'll do. Where he'll go."

In The Marsh King's Daughter, Karen Dionne has created a tense, emotional narrative, juxtaposing the story of a girl raised by a father she idolizes but doesn't understand, in an environment she loves but has no clue about the real reason they live there, and the story of a woman who has buried her past and tried, fitfully, to start anew, even though you can never truly lose who you are. Helena's past and present unfurl, and you understand what has brought her to this moment, but you don't really know how she'll react, when she's never truly felt comfortable anywhere other than the marsh.

I thought this was a really terrific read, and it's one of those books that will make a fantastic movie. I was able to visualize Helena's search for her father, the warring feelings inside her hoping she'll find him and hoping he'll have left her behind once and for all. Dionne is a great storyteller, and even though the plot may be a little predictable, you are pulled in from the beginning and don't want to put the book down until you see how everything unfolds.

A few caveats, however. For a book full of tension, I felt it dragged on a tiny bit too long—I wanted to know everything about her childhood on the marsh and how she got to present day, but I also wanted the confrontation between daughter and father to come quicker than it did, although the payoff is worth it. The book does have some graphic violence (towards men and women, and some towards a child), some graphic descriptions of hunting and butchering animals, and a little bit of animal cruelty, so be forewarned. One or a combination of these may be a deal breaker for some.

I hesitate using the term "beach read," but The Marsh King's Daughter really feels like one, full of suspense, action, and emotion. It definitely helps put your own life problem and your own relationship with your parents in perspective, because I certainly hope the fictional life Dionne created for her far outweighs the complications of yours!!

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