The Marsh King’s Daughter: Karen Dionne
How do you live your life isolated from the rest of the world and not feel resentful, alone or wondering what you might have missed? Helena finds herself held captive along with her young mother living in the Marshland and yet not realizing that her life is anything but ordinary. Her father took her mother captive and she was born two years later. Helena’s mother barely survived her birth yet thinking that she would provide some joy or comfort in her mother’s life but that was not to be. Her father was a dangerous man and you wonder as you read the novel, hear her recounts of her childhood why she worshipped and idolized this man. Not exactly loving or giving hugs, at times he could be downright cruel and abusive. Helena even when we switch to the present does not hate her father, wants to find him since the story begins with his escape from prison and killing two guards. No remorse follows yet she might lose her children and husband; Stephen as she remains in their home, returns to the marshland with her dog Rambo and is bent on finding her father. Is that she refuses to see the truth and the light or is it because he is her father and actually taught her to survive and skills needed to live without any of the luxuries or comforts of home. The story flashes between two time periods the present and we meet her as a child as in the present changed her name, her appearance and has married Stephen, two daughters. Stephen’s job is as a sales person who sells jam and jellies to local stores and fairs. Listening to the radio she learns of her father’s escape or that of the Marsh King as he is referred to. She realizes it’s her father and knows that he will come after her knowing whatever she possesses and knows belongs to him. Although she can help the police find him we hear her wanting to cover up the evidence that might convict him and the note left on one of the bodies directed at her. The police are hunting him but only Helena knows where to look. The author includes different parts of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Marsh King’s Daughter, hence the title of the boo, adding to the suspense, helping us understand how her father received the name Marsh King from the media. When released from captivity why did she still miss her father’s guidance as she learned at the age of 6 to shoot, hunt and even go deer hunting not long after. She loved the skills he taught her as her mother isolated herself in her garden and her love of vegetables and growing them. They never really mesh or connect and never really seem to talk with one another. Helena bothers little about her and rarely even gives her a second thought. Reading was her passion and learning about historical places, the marshland and reading her poetry book satisfied her curiosity. She loved the woods and could not understand why her mother hated her confinement. She hunted, lived off the land, understood the culture of Native Americans that endeared her father to her since he shared these skills with her. Television did not matter but there was no television or radio or outside world. She never wanted to escape and her loyalties were to him even now but why? How does someone so young survive with a man who kept her so isolated? Raising her to understand Native American mythology and seeing him at his trial after committing murder and her mother in the stands oblivious to the entire thing, Helena even with all that he’s done still loves her father and the last time she saw him still haunts her memory wondering what kind of man he really was and if he really cared about her or was using her for his own purposes. Does he want her now? Will he come after her?
Her mother might not have bonded with her but her father made sure she would live in this world as he sees it and not what others might want her to see making sure she did not care about her mother nor did she respond to her wishes or commands. The author created a child who lived for her father’s acceptance and love and hated her mother. She was raised to respect him and not worry about the fact that her mother was ripped from the lives of others, her life and never grew up to be anything or anyone on her own.
Hearing Helena speak about her father, learning that he tried to drown her mother and seeing the disconnect between them is quite startling. Hearing the voices of both her and her father and vividly seeing him slam a hammer on her thumb hoping she did not break it, trying to teach her a lesson for making a simple child’s mistake, is frightening. A wife that did not ever defend her and a child who defied her mother every step of the way except if her father dared to tell her not too. A wife like his lived with him from the time she was 15 but how many would have gone willingly and what happens when Helena learns she and her mother are being held captive? Why didn’t her mother try to escape for real? Yet, learning about her own children briefly in the present, hearing her words when Stephen takes them away to safety, you wonder what kind of a parent she turned out to be. Smart, brave, having survival skills that most do not and until she was 12 lived in total isolation of others. How do you assimilate? When she tells Stephen about her father and what he’s done and the fact that he’s going to come after her, this changes it all. She seems to disconnect even from him and when he chooses to return to their cabin after taking his children to safety, the reader would have liked more about their relationship hoping he would be a bigger part of the story. Her life was with her father as he used his own blueprint to define it. He was self-absorbed and only worried about what he wanted and any other thoughts would receive punishment. Can Helena trust her feelings for Stephen and why did she really not show much emotion when he returns home? The physical abuse if seem by child services would have been dealt with and his verbal comments were not much better. The descriptions of the marsh, where she lived and hunted helps the reader experience the kills of the beaver, deer and other animals and you can even taste the strange and unusual foods that she was forced to eat. Complacent you might say at times and never really caring about her mother yet the author includes pieces of the Marsh King’s Daughter by Anderson that elaborate on events in this young person’s cabin and how they correlate and mirror some of what Helena experiences in the present. The setting is the wilds of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the cabin is isolated and they never have visitors except the addition of Rambo a special dog that her father grew to hate but let her keep. While he is supposedly in prison and then escapes will she understand that she is in danger and needs to open her eyes, take off the lens that area clouding her vision and face reality as she stared into the face of the guard that he killed and watched the police at the scene of the crime.
Things take an unusual turn when Helena and her father go on an outing and she sees two young people and their parents. Never realizing that fathers and mothers can be kind to their children she is in awe and wants to meet them and hopefully play with them too. When her father takes her shooting she misses and he places her in a well for three days with no room to sit and no foot. Not caring if she lives or dies. But, in the present she comes face to face with this killer and yet she can’t rationalize that he deserves to be in prison or even worse. Finding him was her first mistake taken her and handcuffing her she had to think fast about how she might get away. Deranged, delusional, crazy, dangerous and yet she still for some reason loved her father and never really got to know her mother. Cousteau and Calypso were her two friends and helping her get away from her father was their goal or did she imagine they were there. The ending will shock readers. Instead of heading home to her husband is the reason she got caught by her father and losing cell service made it worse because who would come to her aid? An ending so devastating, show heartbreaking and intense that the reader refers back to the one written by Anderson as the main character “Helga knelt by the corpse of the Christina priest and the carcass of the dead horse. She thought of the Viking wife in the wild moorland, of the gentle eyes of her foster mother, and of the tears she had shed over the poor frog child.” While her mother had enlisted the help of someone called the Hunter why didn’t Helena believe he was there to them escape. A father whose cruelties knew no bounds, a young girl living in the moorland in Anderson’s story and a young mother whose childhood in the Marshland changed her perspective on live forever. Will Helena ever recover? Will she ever explain her life to her young children as the Marsh King’s Daughter?
Fran Lewis: Just reviews/MJ magazine