Wednesday, February 2, 2011


I finished reading Keeper a few days ago, late at night.  But I wanted to think about it, and let it seep in.  I also have had very little sleep for the past few days (Gloria and Frances have been sick) and I wasn't sure I could be coherent about it.  Hopefully now that I've gotten a good night's sleep, I'll be smarter!

Keeper is having a very bad day.  It is a blue moon, and everyone in her small, gulf-side neighborhood is angry at her.  For a ten year old, that is hard to deal with.  Keeper has ruined Signe's gumbo, she has ruined Mr. Beauchamp's night-blooming cyrus and she has ruined Dogie's ukelele.  There is nowhere to turn for comfort except for her birth mother, who is a mermaid.

As you begin the novel, Keeper is already out in the pond which connects to the Gulf of Mexico.  She has "borrowed" Dogie's boat, even though she has been told that it is not sea-worthy.  Keeper has been raised by Signe after Keeper's mother became a mermaid when Keeper was young - or so Keeper believes.  The other people on this small road form an unusual, close-knit family.  In fact, Dogie was going to sing a marriage proposal to Signe that very night...until Keeper broke his ukelele.  Keeper (nicknamed by her mother on their last day together) feels the weight of her actions as they seem to spiral out of her control.  The only person who she believes can fix things is her mermaid mother.

Appelt takes the traditional mythology of the sea and turns it on its ear.  Keeper knows every story about mermaids and the creatures of the ocean, and because there is a blue moon this night, the magic is thick in the air.  Keeper's story is so drenched in mythology, in fact, that readers will be prepared to believe just about anything.  It is a strong introduction  to magical realism for an older elementary school student.  This story is about love and family connections, but it's also about the call of the sea and how you can sometimes mishear it through the waves.

All of this summary and discussion does not do justice to the tension of this novel.  From the very beginning, you know that Keeper is out in a boat, pointed out to sea, in the middle of the night, by herself.  As readers, we know that there is the potential for quite a bit of danger.  Keeper's naivete as she begins her journey is stunning.  She believes her mother will rescue and protect her on this trip, so there is nothing to worry about.  However, Keeper could not be more wrong.

The ocean chapters are short and succinct, building on the tension until you are gulping chapters to see whether Keeper can survive her perilous quest.  But Appelt subtly relieves the tension by interspersing Keeper's chapters with chapters from the other characters' points of view.  While Keeper has certain things that she has always believed about her childhood, the other characters understand more.  Appelt explores the ideas that children hold about themselves and their childhood through Keeper.  But the adult characters show how coming of age often means learning more about what you have held dear.

One of the strongest pieces of magical realism in Keeper involves Mr. Beauchamp.  He is the oldest person living on the beach, and he has been waiting a very long time for the love of his life to appear.  Appelt tells his story with kindness and compassion, as he rejected the person he loved when there was something about him that was different.  Mr. Beauchamp's love is a man, but it is handled respectfully and in a way that a child who wasn't ready to read about it might only see a loving friendship.  And the way this love melds with the rest of Keeper's story is terrific.  I don't want to spoil the plot too much, but I will say that the legends of the sea truly become human in this story in a very fulfilling manner.

All in all, I am surprised that this book hasn't won any major awards this season.  My only complaint about the book is that at 399 pages, it looks a little long for the audience.  However, its small format and short chapters mean it reads very quickly.  The comfort of the ocean setting, the love that comes from Keeper's non-traditional family, the mermaids that swim throughout Keeper's imagination make this a beautiful novel.

Keeper.  Appelt, Kathi.  Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010.
borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library.

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