Monday, July 17, 2017

Review of "The Marsh King's Daughter" by Karen Dionne

When Helena Pelletier hears that Jacob Holbrook has escaped from prison after killing two guards, she freaks out. Jacob, also known as "The Marsh King", is Helena's father.

Jacob kidnapped Helena's mother when she was 14-years-old and held the girl captive in the marshes of Michigan's Upper Peninsula for many years. During that time, Helena was born - and raised in isolation for 12 years.....until she ran away. Afterwards, Jacob was captured, convicted, and sent to prison.

As a child, Helena adored her father, an Ojibwa Indian who taught her to identify the local flora, gather edible plants, trap rabbits, catch fish, hunt deer, track animals, chop wood, and so on - everything one needs to know to live off the land. Although Jacob was cruel at times, Helena was content and - as far as she knew - had a good life.

Then, at the age of eleven, Helena happened to glimpse a happy family with two playful children - and a seed of dissatisfaction was planted in her mind. Helena 'named' the children she'd seen 'Cousteau' and 'Calypso' and they became her imaginary friends/muses. A year later a terrible incident led Helena to escape.

Since then Helena has (more or less) acclimated to a 'normal' life. She learned to socialize with other people, got married, had two little girls, and established a business making homemade jellies and preserves.

Now that Jacob's on the loose, Helena fears for herself and her family. Though the cops are searching for the escaped convict, Helena believes she's the only person who can track Jacob down and capture him - and she sets out to do exactly that.

Helena's hunt for Jacob is interspersed with flashbacks to her childhood. From scenes in the past we learn that: Helena's family lived in a primitive cabin with no electricity or modern conveniences; winters were horribly cold and summers brought hordes of mosquitoes and biting flies; the family rarely bathed or washed their clothes; Helena had a stash of old 'National Geographic' magazines that provided a peek at the outside world; Jacob was a sadist who exerted total control over his 'wife' and daughter - inflicting severe punishment for any disobedience; and Helena's mom was a downtrodden 'housewife' who cooked, sewed, slept with Jacob, and tried to provide little treats for her daughter.....though she didn't show much outward affection toward the girl.

In the present, Helena searches for her father, but running him down is a tough call. Jacob knows the local geography inside and out, and plays a skillful 'cat and mouse' game with his daughter. For her part, Helena has formidable tracking skills - and knows how to use a knife and gun. So it's a pretty fair contest between father and daughter.

As Helena traipses through the marshes and reflects on her life, she seems to retain a spark of love for her dad. However, any affection is hard to maintain in the face of his behavior. And Jacob's feelings for Helena seem to be ambivalent as well.

To add another element to the book, excerpts from Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale, 'The Marsh's King Daughter', are interwoven with Helena's story. The fable - about a princess who's a wild, selfish girl by day and a quiet frog by night - didn't add much to the book for me.

Many readers gave this book glowing reviews, and some consider it one of the best books of the year. It's true that the book is well-written, and the story is compelling. Nevertheless, for me the book is just okay. The problem is, I don't like any of the characters.....and Helena doesn't (completely) ring true to me.

Jacob is a criminal and sociopath, so he's an unsympathetic character (which is okay).
Helena's mother is a victim - and garners sympathy - but has no traits that make her likeable. I felt like I should have cared about her more.
As for Helena.....what I have to say requires a spoiler alert.


As a child, Helena's attitude toward her mother is unnatural. For example: When Helena's mother asks for help with some chores, Helena disdainfully walks away.....figuring her mom can't do anything about it. Helena pulls a knife and threatens her mother. Helena finds her mother's treasured hidden magazine and refuses to return it. When Helena's mother makes a doll for her fifth birthday, Helena uses it for target practice. Helena seems to care nothing for her mother's suffering. Moreover, in spite of Helena's disrespect for her mother, she obtains animal skins and expects her mom to make them into mittens and hats - very labor intensive endeavors.

Of course Helena is following Jacob's lead, but a child has a biological imperative to attach to (love?) her this nasty behavior made me dislike Helena.

As an adult, Helena doesn't tell her husband about her past. This doesn't ring true to me. Helena periodically goes off alone - for weeks at a time - to hunt bears, go fishing, shoot deer, camp out in the woods, etc. And one time, Helena does this right after having a child. I can't fathom how her husband would think this was normal without a really good explanation. (I mean hunting for bears? Really??)


Though I have criticisms, I think the book is well worth reading and would recommend it to fans of thrillers and literary fiction.

Rating: 3 stars

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