Monday, September 04, 2017


Title: The Marsh King's Daughter
Author: Karen Dionne
Publisher: GP Putnam's Sons
Pages: 320

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne is inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale by the same name.

The book is written in the first person past tense point of view of Helena Pelletier nee Holbrook. Born in captivity to a mother who was just 17 when she was abducted by Jacob Holbrook, Helena had not seen another human being apart from her parents by the time she turned 12 years of age.

Today, Helena is happily married to Stephen Pelletier, and they, along with their kids, five-year-old Iris, and baby Mari, live on the estate bequeathed to her by her father’s parents. The same father that she had helped send to prison.

Her husband knows nothing about her past, but all that changes when she hears on the news that Jacob killed two guards and escaped from prison. She knows that his next stop will be to hunt her down and punish her for putting him away.

The only one who can protect her family is Helena, for she is the only one who knows how to fight well. After all, it was he who trained her to be the warrior she is. She is the only one who knows his methods, how his mind works, and she aims to catch him and put him back in prison.

Will she succeed against her father? Or will he outwit her?

The writing is descriptive, deliciously so, and you imagine yourself on the marsh with the dangerous Jacob Holbrook lurking around. I enjoyed Helena’s descriptions of the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, and the life there, the prevailing weather conditions and the starkness of the environment in which man realises just how puny he is in the face of nature’s power.

I liked the back and forth linkages between the past and the present. For instance, Helena tells us about how Jacob forced her to play tracking games; if she lost, she had to surrender something that was important to her. This time, what is at stake is her family.

Returning to civilisation, Helena comments on her experience, her understanding of civilisation versus the wilderness, and the media frenzy that her return evokes.

Her father, a larger-than-life figure who she idolises, dominates her recollections. But these recollections are tinged with hindsight.

Overall, there is an air of adventure about life in the marsh that we can’t help but find appealing. Particularly from the perspective of a child who didn’t truly know the man she idolised as her father.

I found the nuggets of information that Helena supplied very interesting. Like the one on how bears bleed. These nuggets were not unlike the well-researched content carried by the National Geographic volumes that she grew up learning to read.

Tracking is like reading, Helena tells us. The signs are words. Connect them into sentences and they tell a story about an incident in the life of the animal that passed through.

In the absence of radio, TV, traffic and other distractions, she has learned to listen for sound. She is completely at home in the wilderness, and can survive better there than she can in the midst of civilisation.

The story is written in the first person point of view of Helena. The main story is interspersed with excerpts from the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale by the same name, which precede the chapters. The child in the tale is a beautiful but wild and wicked child by day, and an ugly but sweet and mournful frog at night.

Similarly, Helena too is conflicted, resenting her father and loving him too. She is the one who helped put her father behind bars, yet she idolises him, and continues to do so, despite knowing the extent of his cruelty. She’s happy her father is free, even though just like that, the walls of my carefully constructed second life come tumbling down.

Strangely, she resents her mother for the situation, for not doing enough to protect her, when her mother’s plight was far worse than hers.

She knows the psychology behind why her mother never tried to escape, the ‘learned helplesseness’ that caused her to obey her captor but she still resents her mother and thinks that she does not love her.

I can get the fact that her years away from civilisation, away from other people, has left her unable to really judge people. By her own admission, she was a girl who didn’t know we were captives until we were not.

What I don’t understand is why she didn’t sell the house and move away, why she didn’t change her first name. Why leave those clues behind for her father to trace? 

As a child, she has no way of knowing that her father is abusive, but surely that understanding must have come later, some measure of it, after she and her mother were rescued and she began to make a new life for herself. Surely in the interest of her family’s safety, she should have fled the state.

It is annoying when characters behave stupidly after first giving you evidence of their intelligence.

At one level, I felt sorry for Helena. Her recollections make it hard for us to figure out whether we should pity her or admire her.

She describes the hunting and shooting lessons that her father gives her in detail. It made me feel more than a little queasy at the thought of a man like that influencing a child’s mind.

Jacob is a sadistic and devious man who manipulated the child who adored him. As readers, we can see that and we feel irritated when Helena does not. We fear that her refusal to see him as a threat will hurt her and her family.

It is only towards the end that she admits later that Memories can be tricky, especially those from childhood and Maybe the man I remember never existed. Maybe the things I think happen never did. 

(I got a free ARC from FirstToRead).

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