“But once in a rare while they come late to the changing.”

Part Two of my Selkie Series

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The cover of "The Turning," by Emily Whitman. A naked boy kneels at the edge of the sea, looking up at the moon. His shadow/reflection is an upside-down seal.
Emily Whitman.  The Turning.  New York: Greenwillow Books, 2018.

Rating:  4.9 out of 5 gold doubloons that may or may not be real.

Recommended if you like:  Wilderness survival stories — Wild Child stories, in particular.  Stories about the magic of reading and storytelling.  Stories that affirm readers who are waiting to reach some milestone or develop some skill that everyone around them seems to have figured out naturally.

Recommended playlist:

  • “The Silkie,” by William Jackson
  • “Aran Boat Song,” by William Jackson, et al.
  • “Pilnatis” (Full Moon), by Jurga
  • “Island Mystery,” by Garry McDonald, et al. (from the Ocean Girl soundtrack)
  • “Persistence of Memory,” by Afro Celt Sound Systems

Also:  The audiobook is wonderful!  The narrator, Kirby Heyborne, infuses every bit of dialogue with all the feelings.  Whether a character is reciting a ritual chant or screaming into the night, Heyborne lets us hear exactly how devoted or desperate they are.  My only wish is that he could’ve sung the songs instead of speaking them, but Emily Whitman provides a link on her website to this gorgeous performance of “The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry.”

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The Story

Aran is the only selkie in his clan who was born “in longlimbs” — without a sealskin.  The others take care of him as much as they can, but as he gets older, they start to see him as a burden and a threat.  What would humans think if they saw a boy swimming with seals in the middle of the sea?

So Aran’s mother leaves him on an island, in the care of a trusted human, while she swims north in search of the answer to Aran’s most persistent question:  when will he get his sealskin?  In the meantime, Aran tries to follow his mother’s warnings and stay hidden, but there are things and people that call to him, and secrets he must learn if he is ever to return to his clan.

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First, this book gets major points every time Maggie calls Aran “ocean boy,” setting off my Ocean Girl Radar.

My "Ocean Girl Radar" logo: a picture of Neri, looking up at the viewer from the water, with a radar target in the foreground and the words "Ocean Girl Radar TM" at the top.

Now, before you argue that that’s a stretch, there’s a character in Season 3 whom the villains call “ocean boy,” so it totally counts.  Plus, there’s the whole lives-on-an-island/raised-by-sea-creatures business, so there you go!

Second, as disturbingly enthralled as I am by Seanan McGuire’s selkie creation story, I still love the positive ones that portray selkies as (mostly) gentle beings better.  I love Emily Whitman’s idea of selkies being born from music and moonlight.  And I love the hint that there are selkies whose seal forms can be other species besides grey and harbor seals.

Third, I love the commentary on bias in stories, depending on who’s telling them — for example, how different would the Seal Wife story sound if it was told by the selkie woman vs. the human man?  And what about the half-selkie children who may or may not have been born with sealskins?  What happens to them?

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As in every fairy tale, there are moments when I need to don my suspension-of-disbelief goggles.  Sometimes they work (I’m willing to believe Elsa’s parents could separate their two daughters so successfully, within the same castle, for years, that the younger one would never notice even a trace of the older one’s nearly-uncontrollable ice powers), while sometimes they turn into skepticals instead (The little mermaid is supposed to feel unbearable pain whenever she’s on her feet, but no one ever notices her limping or wincing or anything?).

A GIF of Dipper and Mabel from Gravity Falls. Mabel is miming a pair of eyeglasses, saying "Allow me to put on my skepticals." Dipper gets angry and walks away. Mabel narrows her eyes and repeats, "Skepticals."

In this case, I found myself wearing a thin pair of skepticals when I read that Aran learned to read well enough, from scratch, in just a few weeks, to search through dozens of old texts for selkie stories.  He’s not like Morgan in Seven Tears at High Tide, who absorbs all of his human skills and information from an omniscient and omnipotent Sea.  There’s no mention of selkies having special powers on land, so how did Aran go from picture books to scholarly tomes in less than a month?

Also, just how far out does Aran’s clan live, and would human fishermen really never notice a human-looking boy riding around on the back of a seal for eleven years?

And also, the Moon’s kind of a jerk, amirite?  Like, how much does this kid have to go through to prove himself worthy?

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As I said, the few puzzling moments only required a thin pair of disbelief goggles.  For the most part, the fairy tale logic worked fine.  The story is full of Magic and Mystery, and yet encourages human readers to believe in their own ordinary powers.  Whitman combines existing selkie lore — re-telling known stories from Aran and Nellie’s point of view — with her own invented folk tales to create a unique mythology.

Also, half of me totally ships my imagined grown-up versions of Aran and Nellie.  I think they could join the growing list of selkie-human relationships that don’t involve theft or coercion or tragic endings.

Finally, you should absolutely check out Emily Whitman’s website if you want to learn more about the kind of research she did for The Turning and other stories.  She provides links to videos on seal anatomy and Pacific Northwest habitats, quizzes and lesson plans on ocean health, and various versions of mermaid and seal-folk tales from North America and the British Isles.

“Skepticals” gif from gfycat.


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