Laurie Brooks. Selkie Girl. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
Rating: 3 out of 5 Chosen One stories
Of course I thought this would be right up my alley. I first encountered this story as a one-act play years ago, and it was cool seeing it fleshed out into novel form. The story is about Ellen/Elin Jean, the thirteen/sixteen-year-old daughter of a selkie and a human crofter who lives in the Orkney Islands (in the novel it’s narrowed down to Shapinsay Island), who doesn’t know why she was born with webbed hands that the other island youth make fun of constantly. In the book, her father is much crueler and angrier about this condition, and barely lets Elin Jean leave the house, whereas in the play he’s the one who wants her to dance at the Midsummer festival with him in front of their whole town. But that night she finds something that changes everything, and takes off on a journey to discover her heritage and her destiny (the novel turns this into a Chosen One story, similar to Isabel of the Whales).
Things I liked:
- The details of Elin Jean’s life on Shapinsay, like the rock she calls Odin’s Throne, where she sits and watches the sea; the way she says “Giddy God!” and prays to St. Magnus; and the way her mother calls her “Peedie Buddo.”
- The selkies’ folktale about Britta and Dane, which explains the origin of selkies.
- The way the story explains the origin of the legendary Clan McCodrun.
Things I didn’t:
This section contains SPOILERS. The non-spoilery gist is that there’s an unnecessary scene and several major character inconsistencies in the second half of the book.
- The short appearance of the sea trows, small goblin-like creatures that almost eat Elin Jean soon after she turns into a seal. This scene felt unnecessary. The story didn’t need the introduction of another magical species. They’re not like the Tylwyth Teg in Home From the Sea, who are part of the larger community of magical beings in the UK, and who contribute to important moments in the story; the sea trows just pop in for that one scene and are never mentioned again.
- The scene in which Elin Jean (I’m going to call her EJ from now on) meets Tam again, months after having ditched him for the sea, is important because it’s the moment she learns about her father’s vengeance on the seals via more frequent culls, which leads EJ to realize what her Chosen One destiny is.
That’s all well and good. The problem is, this scene comes after EJ’s disastrous escapade with a popular clique of young selkies. Her protector Arnfin is furious that he failed to keep tabs on her, so you’d think he’d be way more careful of protecting the Chosen One after that – especially from humans, whom he’s explicitly warned her to stay away from and who were the source of the major danger during her escapade. Yet he hangs back and allows EJ to get up close to a human she explicitly admits she isn’t sure of re: his attitude toward seals. This should’ve raised a big red flag for Arnfin, but it doesn’t.
- After EJ and her mother disappear into the sea, EJ’s father loses it. He’s especially devastated to lose EJ, which leads him to take revenge on the seals for calling her away. And yet, when EJ comes back to him, he doesn’t try to hold onto her like he did before she disappeared; as I said, he used to barely let her out of the house, let alone to the beach, but now he doesn’t care if she goes for long walks by the sea. He also doesn’t care if she hangs out with Tam every day, despite having bad-mouthed him before as an unsuitable match. It turns out he doesn’t care about having her back after all, and instead keeps moaning for her to call her mother back to him.
- But then, when he does see his wife again on the next Midsummer’s Eve, and she leaves her sealskin lying in a pile on the sand, where he can easily steal it again (seriously, Margaret? Seriously?), he doesn’t bother, for some reason. It seems, like with EJ, he doesn’t really care about getting his wife back after all.
This was an ok story. I liked its portrayal of selkie culture, and the way it explains the origin of selkies, but the issues in the second half of the book really threw off my groove.