Kathi Appelt.  KeeperAtheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010.

Disclaimer: I met the author last month at the Sheboygan Children’s Book Fest, which was where I purchased this book.  Also, being a huge fan of mermaid lore, I started the book with ZOMG-this-is-going-to-be-GREAT!!1! expectations.  Even so, my review gives both positive feedback and constructive criticism.

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Kathi Appelt’s newest novel, set near the fictional Texas coast town of Tater, starts with a 10-year-old girl rowing out into the Gulf of Mexico on a blue-moon summer night.  With a dog named BD (Best Dog) and a seagull named Captain for company, Keeper is looking for her mother, the mermaid Meggie Marie.  Keeper hasn’t seen her for seven years, but now Meggie Marie is the only one who can fix the awful mess that Keeper has made.

But Keeper’s is not the only quest that depends on that blue moon.  As in The Underneath, several plots will intersect on that one crucial night.  The story weaves through more than ten points of view, including bits of narration by an invisible omniscient voice—less prevalent than in The Underneath, but just as smooth.  Even BD, Captain, and their neighbor animals have a say.  Even the moon has a voice.

The really great moments:

Appelt creates clear, believable characters with engaging voices — from Keeper’s “no-siree-bob”’s and “cooleoleo”’s … to Sinbad’s sailor lingo … to Captain’s blink-of-an-eye jumps from the pride of catching a “fallen star” to the ecstasy of a watermelon feast … to the dogs’ frenzy over “Ccchhhheeeeeesssseeee crrrrraaaaacccckkkeeerssss!” …  Appelt gives each character a strong personality, so that nearly every action has a clear, believable motive.

She even anticipates readers’ questions.  For instance:  “What makes a ten-year-old girl think she can go out in a boat alone, at night, with only her dog for a sailing mate?”  I hope to achieve her level of magical realism in my own writing.

As in The Underneath, Appelt sprinkles in multiple myths, this time introducing over seven different kinds of mermaid, from the Japanese ningyo to the Arctic Sedna.  As Mr. Beauchamp says, “Find a body of water … and you will likely find a merstory.”  Like Keeper, I love that concept.

Moreover, as in The Underneath, Appelt emphasizes the unity of the world, both geographic and social.  By emphasizing the physical unity of the oceans (“Throughout the centuries, their names have changed, but the water has just kept flowing from one ocean to another.”), Appelt encourages her reader to see all cultures as connected.  In turn, by focusing on relationships such as the friendship between Captain and BD, and the family formed by Keeper, Signe, and Dogie, Appelt shows that all love is equal.

Things that could have been improved:

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If ye wish to avoid the plot-revealing scallawags, skip down to the “To Review” section.

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There were a few areas of confusion and inconsistency in the plot.

  • In one chapter, Keeper remembers the awful sight of Signe and Mr. Beauchamp crying, but in the next chapter, we learn that Keeper ran off before she could have seen that.
  • In Mr. Beauchamp’s flashbacks, we get the impression that Sinbad is somehow related to Jack and the old woman, but by the end of the novel, we still don’t have an answer.
  • When Keeper sees a fin circling her boat, after she has called for Meggie Marie, she just thinks it’s a shark.  I would have expected a girl who has grown up believing in mermaids—who expects to find one that very night—to at least wonder if that’s what she was seeing.  And if she decided it wasn’t Meggie (a decision that should have a clear reason), wouldn’t she have then thought of Jacques de Mer, the mythical figure with a fin along his back?  She had explicitly remembered his legend in a previous chapter, but makes no connection to the fin circling her boat.
  • Finally, the scene in which Keeper remembers what really happened on her third birthday feels confusing and anticlimactic.
  • The confusion:  The information we get about Meggie Marie’s disappearance seems to confirm, not deny, Keeper’s original beliefs about her mother.
  • The anticlimax:  For over 300 pages, the novel builds up to what I thought would be a validation of Keeper’s belief in mermaids.  But by the end of the story, although the reader is given explicit proof of them, Keeper is not.  This was the biggest disapointment for me.  Maybe the point is for Keeper to have faith in her beliefs despite not having proof — after all, she still believes in the sea goddess Yemaya at the end.  But that doesn’t make sense, given the force of her realization about Meggie Marie.

. . . . . . . .

To review:

Despite the unanswered questions, I loved Keeper and highly recommend it:

  • for its fantastic use of voice and development of character;
  • its unique blend of myth, history, and geography;
  • and its progressive messages about love and family.

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