“It is the tide that pulls the seconds through my blood. It is the tide that threads the minutes through my bones.”

Part Three of my Selkie Series

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The cover of
Franny Billingsley.  The Folk Keeper.  New York: Atheneum, 1999.

Rating:  4.95 out of 5 amber beads tossed into the sea for smooth sailing.

Recommended if you like:  Journal-style novels.  Settings in which Christianity and Paganism coexist more or less respectfully.  Stories about girls who disguise themselves as boys to get by, only to discover their true Girl Power after all.

Reading playlist:

  • “La Soñadora” (The Dreamer), by Enya
  • “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps),” by David Bowie
  • “Reiki Healing Music with Waves,” by Oasis of Relaxation Meditation
  • “All Souls Night” by Loreena McKennitt
  • “Storm Front,” by Garry McDonald, et al. (from the Ocean Girl soundtrack)

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This was one of the first selkie stories I ever read, and it was the first (for me) that portrayed selkies in the traditional sense — shape-shifters who transform with the help of an animal pelt.  And it was the first (for me) to subvert the implications of classic selkie folktales (before I’d even read those tales!)  It feels like such a classic that I’m surprised it was published only 21 years ago.

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The Story

Four years ago, Corinna Stonewall disguised herself as a boy and began the dangerous work of a Folk Keeper.  Deep in the Cellar of Rhysbridge Home, she protects its residents from the vicious cave beings (definitely denizens of the Unseelie Court) who would wreak havoc (or at least play obnoxious pranks) if not regularly fed.  It is the only place she feels safe and comfortable.

Then, a visitor arrives and forces Corinna out of hiding.  He seems to know all of her secrets, and she has little choice but to accept his summons to work at Marblehaugh Park, on an island where the Folk are even more dangerous.  Over the next year, Corinna discovers she has more secrets and powers than even she knew.  Why does her hair grow so fast, though she cuts it every night?  Why does she hear the sea singing?  Is there any place for her in the world outside the Cellar?

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Flow

First:  Corinna is one of the most self-assured and hardcore characters I’ve ever met.  She knows exactly how much she’s worth and wreaks havoc on anyone who crosses her.  Some might call her petty at best, or bloodthirsty at worst, but she would say she has Conviction.  At the same time, she learns to respect her vulnerable, sentimental moments, realizing they do not detract from her strength or resilience.

Second:  I love the constant shift between past and present tense.  It reflects the theme of time, and how uniquely Corinna experiences it.  The very act of writing the Folk Record — of narrating the present and the recent past — is essential to her understanding of the world, and her ability to make decisions about the future.  In other words:  the journal format is part of the story itself, and not just a stylistic choice.

Third:  I love Corinna’s emphasis on non-visual descriptions of the undersea.  So many mer-stories talk about the colors and shapes of the ocean and its beings, but that’s a very visually-abled perspective.  Much of the sea is dark, and even where it’s not, not all creatures experience it with 20/20 vision.  Some undersea beings have to use other, more tactile and audial senses, to “map” their world.

Fourth:  The romance between Corinna and Finian is totally aww-some.  The fact that she’s disguised as a boy when he starts falling for her makes me smile, of course, but I also just love how sentimental and open he is with his emotions.  At one point, he openly admits to having “wept enough tears to call dozens” of selkies to rescue “Corin” when he was in danger.

Finally:  I’m intrigued by the idea that you can tell a selkie from an ordinary seal by their eyes.  In this world, selkies have human eyes.  In all the other stories I’ve read so far, selkies look just like ordinary seals.  Granted, the image of a seal with human eyes is a bit Uncanny Valley, so I can see why most authors would avoid it… 0_O

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Ebb

First:  The funny thing about diary-style novels is that they have to find a balance between sounding natural (i.e. a protagonist who’s writing only for herself wouldn’t fill her entries with unnecessary exposition) and giving readers enough information to understand a setting that’s foreign to them.  In other words, Corinna may know what selkies are, and why Folk Keepers are needed in this world, but the reader doesn’t.  For the most part, the author keeps a comfortable balance.

There’s only one moment when she forgets the reader’s lack of knowledge.  Corinna is describing her search for graveyard mold, which is said to protect Folk Keepers against the creatures.  She explains that the mold needs to come from a recently-dug grave, but immediately passes up the most recent grave in the cemetery.  But then comes back to it a few entries later.  Maybe she passed it up initially because it didn’t have enough mold?  Maybe the charm works best if you gather three graves’ worth of mold?  Explain, book!  Explain!

Second:  The romance between Corinna and Finian, while totally aww-some, left this modern reader a biiiit squicked out when I noticed a few details that pre-teen Neri missed.  Yes, I get that social norms were different back in…whatever century this story takes place…but still.  Hit me up in the comments if you want more spoilery details.

Third:  Dog-lovers and sensitive souls be warned.  There’s a very sad scene involving the brutal death of a dog.

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Overall

Fellow selkie scholars should totally consider this recommended reading.  The Folk Keeper is a lovely introduction not only to selkie lore, but to ancient Celtic beliefs overall.  Each plot point is attached to a Holy Day on either the Christian calendar or the Celtic Wheel of the Year.  These beliefs are deeply ingrained in the setting, and there seems to be no conflict between Christian and Pagan devotion.  No one on the island thinks twice about honoring both saints and selkies.

As for how this and other Juv/YA novels twist and support traditional selkie lore, see my next post:  the Great Selkie Review!  

A gif image of a seal on a patch of ice in the middle of the sea. The seal turns its head to look behind, and a second seal pokes its head up from behind the ice. The word "Soon" is written in large white letters at the top left of the image.

 

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“Seal Waiting” gif from giphy.

3 comments

  1. I’m not sure I want to read it now that I know there’s a doggy death. I’m definitely in the gentle soul category for that. Other than that, it sounds like a fantastic tale! I can’t wait to see what book you talk about in part 4!

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