I have fallen off the review wagon in the past few weeks, given the excitement and planning surrounding the release of my first novel, Words That Start With B. I have been reading, though, and have a huge line-up of exciting posts coming your way. Up first, Keeper.
Keeper is ten years old, the daughter of a mermaid who returned to the sea when she was only three, leaving her in the care of Signe, she of the delicious blue moon gumbo and white spiky hair. They live in a remote part of Texas, called Tater, in a misfit community including old Mr. Beauchamp, who carves mermaids out of wood, Dogie, whose spirit was changed by war, a seagull (Captain), and a dog (BD). On this night, the night of the blue moon, Keeper finds herself escaping in a boat, accompanied by BD. She has caused a series of terrible accidents, hurting everyone she loves. The only person who can make things better is her mermaid mother, but where is she? Surely she will come back to rescue her own daughter? The book takes place in one night, featuring a series of flashbacks, filling in the history of Appelt’s lovable and damaged characters.
Although the content and setting of Keeper are quite different from The Underneath, Kathi Appelt employs many of the same techniques. The narrator dips in and out of the heads of a wide range of characters, including animal characters. In fact, the perspectives of BD (Best Dog) and Captain, a rehabilitated seagull, are charming and delightful. Appelt’s sense of place is unique and present in every single sentence. You can practically taste Signe’s magical crab gumbo and feel the sandbars beneath your feet. There’s also a touch of folklore, in the form of Jacques de Mer, a merman who took the shape of a human and fell in love with a boy one magical night in Paris and has searched the world for him ever since.
The story of Beauchamp and his long lost love, the merman Jacques de Mer, is achingly beautiful. They fall in love one magical misty night in Paris, only to be torn apart when Beauchamp sees Jack for what he is, a sea monster, and panics. Running away from Jacques turns out to be the biggest regret of Beauchamp’s life. Appelt never portrays their love as unusual or indecent, in fact many readers may completely miss the fact that the love story in the book is about two young men. The chapter where we learn about Beauchamp’s ill-fated romance could be lifted right out of the narrative and read as a folktale. Their reunion is tender and understated, and nearly brought me to tears.
There is a moment in the book in which Jacques describes Keeper as having the look of being loved. Love is at the heart of this book. There is so much unspoken love between the characters, and it takes one night where things go horribly wrong to bring all that love out into the open. Dogie loves Signe, but can’t ask her to marry him. Signe loves Dogie, but she can’t ask him to marry her. Beauchamp loves Jacques but feels he has betrayed him, Jacques loves Beauchamp but isn’t sure if he’ll ever find him again, Captain loves BD, Sinbad (the one-eyed sea cat) loves Beauchamp, and everyone loves Keeper. It takes one night where everything (and I mean everything)* goes wrong for this group of misfits to express their love and live happily ever after. And they do.
As much as I love Appelt’s work, I often find myself stumped in terms of who I should recommend it to. Her books fall into that category of children’s books that adults love, but I wonder if kids love them. Her language is quite sophisticated, and some of her content requires dialogue or discussion. I am always in favour of books that spark discussion, but not all children are fortunate enough to have a parent or adult in their life who are able (or willing) to engage with books in this manner. All things considered, I think Keeper is a wonderful read aloud, a gorgeously-written book for a parents or teachers to read and cherish with the young people in their lives. Think Randall Jarrell’s The Animal Family. It would also appeal to a strong 10-12 year old reader.
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Keeper is available in hard cover from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
*There is a scary moment where one is led to believe that BD dies. Fear not. This is not one of those children’s novels where the dog dies.