The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne

Marsh book In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a violent murderer, known as the Marsh King for his ability to live undetected in the back marshes for years, has just escaped from the penitentiary by murdering two prison guards. In Karen Dionne’s superbly thrilling novel The Marsh King’s Daughter, there is only one possible destination for the man: the home of his adult daughter Helena, her husband and their two children.  Helena Pelletier knows her father well. She herself is the daughter of a woman he abducted, raped repeatedly, and held hostage for over a decade.

Now, Helena knows her father Jacob is coming to reestablish his marsh family and to take her and her girls with him.

I had the pleasure of meeting Karen Dionne at the Salt Cay Writers Retreat that she established while she was working on The Marsh King’s Daughter. I remember her glee when she reported how pleased her agent was with her progress on this book and now having read it, I can see why. It’s stunning in plot, character, and description.

marigoldI sit up and check my watch. It’s still difficult for me to be somewhere at an exact time. When a person is raised on the land as I was, the land dictates what you do and when. We never kept a clock. There was no reason to. We were as attuned to our environment as the birds, insects, and animals, driven by the same circadian rhythms. My memories are tied to the seasons. I can’t always remember how old I was when a particular event took place, but I know what time of year it happened.

I know now that for most people, the calendar year begins on January 1. But in the marsh there was nothing about January to distinguish it from December or February or March. Our year began in the spring, on the first day the marsh marigolds bloomed. Marsh marigolds are huge bushy plants two feet or more in diameter, each covered with hundreds of inch-wide bright yellow blossoms. Other flowers bloom in the spring, like the blue flag iris and the flowering heads of the grasses, but marsh marigolds are so prolific that nothing compares to that astonishing yellow carpet. Every year my father would pull on his waders and go out into the marsh and dig one up. He’d put it in an old galvanized tub half-filled with water and set it on our back porch, where it glowed like he’d brought us the sun.

I used to wish my name was Marigold. But I’m stuck with Helena, which I often have to explain is pronounced “Hel-LAY-nuh.” Like a lot of things, it was my father’s choice.

No less than Charles Finch, reviewing for the New York Times Book Review, agrees:

Two elements make Dionne’s book so superb. The first is its authenticity. There’s a strain in the contemporary American novel (“Maud’s Line,” by Margaret Verble, and “The Snow Child,” by Eowyn Ivey, are recent examples) defined by a knowledge of nature that feels intimate, real and longitudinal, connected to our country’s past. When Dionne describes the swamp maples that make a cabin invisible from the air, or the way one digs chicory taproots, then washes, dries and grinds them to make a coffee substitute, it seems effortless, plain that her fluency has a deeper source than Wikipedia.

The second is the corresponding authenticity of Helena’s emotions about her father, painfully revisited and refined as she tracks him. She has no doubt whatsoever that he belongs in prison, but she doesn’t hate him — or at least, part of her hatred is love. . . .

In its balance of emotional patience and chapter-by-chapter suspense, “The Marsh King’s Daughter” is about as good as a thriller can be, I think.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/31/books/review/summer-reading-thrillers.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0

Karen’s authentic descriptions were formed in a way that Mr. Finch may not know, though Karen was kind enough to share the information with me in a series of questions and answers.

During the 1970s, my husband and I homesteaded in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with our infant daughter, living in a tent while we built our tiny cabin, carrying water from a nearby stream, and sampling wild foods, and I definitely bequeathed to my narrator, Helena, my love of wild places and my ease with nature.

My living situation wasn’t nearly as extreme as her family’s, so some of the skills she possesses, I do not. Though I can recognize many wild plants and know which parts are safe to eat and how to cook them, I’ve never hunted, or fished, or trapped—our meat came from the grocery store. That said, I can bake a mean batch of biscuits in an iron skillet on top of a wood stove, and I know how to get a lot of mileage out of a single bucket of water. (Step one: use the fresh, clean, hot water to rinse your dishes. Step two: use the still-warm soapy rinse water to wash the floor. Step three: use the dirty mop water to water your houseplants, or the garden.)

My husband I lived in the Upper Peninsula for 30 years. We came back to the Detroit area when our children were nearly grown so they could have better job and education opportunities, and also to be closer to our aging parents.

Throughout The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen juxtaposes the ordinary chores of Helena’s current life — making and delivering the jams and jellies that help her family survive, parenting the children — with the more severe circumstances under which she was raised. In addition, Karen weaves the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale of the marsh king’s daughter with Helena’s own story to great effect.

SeneyI pick up a news alert: “—escaped prisoner . . . child abductor . . . Marquette . . .”

“Be quiet,” I yell, and turn the volume up.

“Seney National Wildlife Refuge . . . armed and dangerous . . . do not approach.” At first, that’s all I manage to catch.

I need to hear this. The refuge is less than thirty miles from our house. “Mari, stop!”

Mari blinks into silence. The report repeats:

“Once again, state police report that a prisoner serving life without parole for child abduction, rape, and murder has escaped from the maximum security prison in Marquette, Michigan. The prisoner is believed to have killed two guards during a prison transfer and escaped into the Seney National Wildlife Refuge south of M-28. Listeners should consider the prisoner armed and dangerous. Do NOT, repeat, DO NOT approach. If you see anything suspicious, call law enforcement immediately. The prisoner, Jacob Holbrook, was convicted of kidnapping a young girl and keeping her captive for a dozen years in a notorious case that received nationwide attention . . .”

My heart stops. I can’t see. Can’t breathe. Can’t hear anything over the blood rushing in my ears. I slow the truck and pull carefully onto the shoulder. My hand shakes as I reach to turn the radio off.

Jacob Holbrook has escaped from prison. The Marsh King. My father.

Karen’s website, http://www.karen-dionne.com/the-marsh-kings-daughter/, has a raft of great reviews. Here, I add mine. It’s a dynamite read and your book club will love it. Plus there’s some — shall we say very interesting — food.

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chokecherry1Helena makes jams and jellies from the natural abundance surrounding her in the Upper Peninsula. Some of the most interesting choices I found to be her cattail and blueberry jelly. I had no idea they were edible. Karen though shared with me her recipe for Chokecherry Apple Jelly. From Karen:

Blueberries grow profusely all over the Upper Peninsula; in fact, some of the old-timers tell stories of how, during the Great Depression, entire families went out into the plains and camped there for weeks picking blueberries to be sold to restaurants as far south as Chicago to supplement their income, so having my character make her living selling jelly and jam was a natural choice.how-to-draw-a-raccoon-9

I’ve made many kinds of jelly and jam over an open campfire (and had to defend the cooling jars against marauding raccoons!). My favorite was wild-apple chokecherry jelly. Chokecherries are far too sour to eat straight off the tree, but make delicious jelly. Because wild apples are a source of natural pectin, mixing the cherries and apples meant we didn’t have to buy pectin from the store.

Once when I was hiking toward the abandoned orchard behind our cabin, I came upon a pile of bear dung that was so fresh, it was practically steaming. I decided to abandon my apple-picking plans that day, since I couldn’t quite picture myself running from a bear and climbing a tree while carrying my infant daughter on my back!

Here’s my recipe for Chokecherry Apple Jelly

1 pint chokecherries
6 medium tart apples
2 cups water
2 tbsp. lemon juice (optional)
5 cups sugar

Cut up apples (seeds and all), wash and crush cherries, and put in saucepan with water and lemon juice. Bring to a slow boil and simmer about 5 minutes. Put in jelly bag; squeeze out juice. Measure 2 cups into kettle. If necessary, add water to make 2 cups. Put over high heat and stir until mixture comes to a hard boil. At once stir in sugar. Bring to a full rolling boil; then boil hard one minute, stirring. Remove from heat, skim off foam; pour into glasses. Top with 1/8″ paraffin. Makes 8 (6 oz.) glasses.

I had to ask about the cattails and here’s what I learned: “In his book “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” Euell Gibbons calls the common cattail the “supermarket of the swamps,” and details how to gather and enjoy the new shoots, the starchy rhizomes, and even the unripe flower spikes and ripe spikes covered with rich yellow pollen, and we tried them all. Like Helena in my novel, I particularly like eating the young heads boiled in salted water and eaten like corn on the cob. We also enjoyed young milkweed pods.”

So if you’re truly adventurous, head on out and eat you some cattails and milkweed!

MUSIC

My first thought would be to simply find a nature soundtrack or if you live in a home with summertime insect noises (and screen windows), simply open the window. Karen told me that while writing, “I listen to movie soundtracks  – there are no words, but there is a narrative to the album, and the emotion comes through loud and clear. For The Marsh King’s Daughter, my first choice was the soundtrack for the movie “Inception.” I also listened to a couple tracks from “Jurassic Park” when I needed a particular mood.”

Many thanks to Karen Dionne for participating in my blog today! Karen

Happy Reading!

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News of the World, Paulette Jiles

old news

At age 70, Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd has endured wars, a wife, the loss of her, two daughters, and has traveled the roads and byways of his native South. In Paulette Jiles’ 2016 National Book Award-nominated News of the World, this gentleman is now roaming Texas reading periodicals and papers to audiences so starved for news of the outside world they will pay a nickel a piece to hear it proclaimed.

Capt. Kidd seems content to  live life this way while waiting for his daughters to move back home to Texas. Jiles’ paints her gentleman newsreader as remote from the world of his audiences, saddened by the passage of time, impatient with the impatience of intolerance.

Captain Kidd laid out the Boston Morning Journal on the lectern and began to read from the article on the Fifteenth Amendment. He had been born in 1798 and the third war of his lifetime had ended five years ago and he hoped never to see another but now the news of the world aged him more than time itself. Still he stayed his rounds, even during the cold spring rains. He had been at one time a printer but the war had taken his press and everything else, the economy of the Confederacy had fallen apart even before the surrender and so he now made his living in this drifting from one town to another in North Texas with his newspapers and journals in a waterproof portfolio and his coat collar turned up against the weather. He rode a very good horse and was concerned that someone might try to take the horse from him but so far so good. So he had arrived in Wichita Falls on February 26th and tacked up his posters and put on his reading clothes in the stable. There was a hard rain outside and it was noisy but he had a good strong voice.

He shook out the Journal’s pages.

The Fifteenth Amendment, he read, which has just been signed between the several states February 3rd, 1870, allows the vote to all men qualified to vote without regard to race or color or previous condition of servitude. He looked up from the text. His reading glasses caught the light. He bent slightly forward over the lectern. That means colored gentlemen, he said. Let us have no vaporings or girlish shrieks. He turned his head to search the crowd of faces turned up to him. I can hear you muttering, he said. Stop it. I hate muttering.

He glared at them and then said, Next. The Captain shook out another newspaper. The latest from the New York Herald Tribune states that the polar exploration ship Hansa is reported by a whaler as being crushed in sunk in the pack ice in its attempt to reach the North Pole; sunk at seventy degrees north latitude off Greenland. There is nothing in this article about survivors. He flipped the page impatiently.

This moment presents Capt. Kidd with what is perhaps his life’s last great challenge. A ten-year-old girl has been “rescued” from her Kiowa captors. Kidd is charged with returning Johanna to her closest relatives, across Texas, fighting brigands, harsh countryside, and the girl’s own hysteria at being ripped from the only family she knew.

news of the worldBritt said, The Kiowa don’t want her. They finally woke up to the fact that having a white captive gets you run down by the cav. The Agent said to bring all the captives in or he was cutting off their rations and sending the 12th and the 9th out after them. They brought her in and sold her for fifteen Hudson’s Bay four-stripe blankets and a set of silver dinnerware. German coin silver. They’ll beat it up into bracelets. It was Aperian Crow’s band brought her in. Her mother cut her arms to pieces and you could hear her crying for a mile.

Her Indian mother.

Yes, said Britt.

Were you there?

Britt nodded.

I wonder if she remembers anything. From when she was six.

No, said Britt. Nothing.

The girl still did not move. It takes a lot of strength to sit that still for that long. She sat upright on the bale of Army shirts which were wrapped in burlap, marked in stencil for Fork Belknap. Around her were wooden boxes of enamel wash basins and nails and smoked deer tongues packed in fat, a sewing machine in a crate, fifty-pound sacks of sugar. Her round face was flat in the light of the lamp and without shadows, or softness. She seemed carved.

“[It] is a narrow but exquisite book about the joys of freedom (experienced even by a raging river threatening to overrun its banks); the discovery of unexpected, proprietary love between two people who have never experienced anything like it; pure adventure in the wilds of an untamed Texas; and the reconciling of vastly different cultures (as when Kidd has to explain to Johanna, who is all set to collect a white man’s scalp, that this “is considered very impolite” and simply isn’t done). That’s a lot to pack into a short (213 pages), vigorous volume, but Ms. Jiles is capable of saying a lot in few words.” https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/13/books/news-of-the-world-paulette-jiles.html 

paulette_jiles-400Obviously Jiles is a writer of immense and immediate talent. She places each word, showing as well as proclaiming herself a poet, novelist and memoirist. Her website, http://paulettejiles.com , contains numerous blog posts enlivening the writer’s work with insights into her life and thoughts and writing processes. I learned that she is, like me, an alto who enjoys singing the low line but occasionally resents the showier sopranos.

I truly enjoyed this book, found it haunting and beautiful and lyrical. Capt. Kidd and Johanna’s growing relationship, their fierce-now-lost world, are with me, thought it’s been several weeks since I’ve read the Jiles’ novel. It is now out in paperback and I heartily endorse the choice for your book club.

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From the novel: Brisket barbecue, divinity candy, taffy, Alsatian noodles with lamb and cream.

I have never tried a beef brisket but I love eating it. I think this novel may inspire me to try. My good friend Monica — a book club member — does her briskets in a “Big Green Egg” but since I don’t have one of those, I will try this Southern Living endorsed, Texas brisket recipe on a grill: http://www.myrecipes.com/recipe/fiesta-brisket . My mouth is already watering.

When I was a child, one of my favorite parts of Christmas was the tray of homemade candies my grandmother would bring out on Christmas Eve. And my favorite part of that tray was the divinity candy. Here’s her recipe:

  • 4 cups sugar
  • 1 cup white corn syrup
  • 3/4 cup cold water
  • 3 egg whites
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla
  • 2 cups chopped pecans

Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form.

In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, stir together the sugar, corn syrup, and water until sugar dissolves. Without stirring further, cook until mixture reaches hard ball stage.

Use a slow pour to stream syrup into egg whites beating constantly at high speed. Add  vanilla and continue to beat until mixture holds its shape, approximately 5 minutes. Stir in pecans.

Using 2 spoons, drop the divinity onto waxed paper, using 1 spoon to push the candy off the other. If the candy becomes too stiff, add a few drops of hot water.  Cool on racks.

MUSIC

Jiles’ website says she is a choir member and the music sprinkled throughout News of the World reflects a deep knowledge of a Southern hymnal and folk music.

It is Well With My Soul

Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross

Come to the Power

Black is the Color

Yellow Rose of Texas

MOVIE CASTING

redford

Apparently Fox 2000 bought the movie rights to star Tom Hanks as Capt. Kidd. Which to me is a durn shame.

 

Robert Redford is the perfect Capt. Kidd.

Happy Reading!

 

 

Into the Water, by Paula Hawkins

River with Wooden Mill House

James Stark (1794-1859) British

Hawkins hit a grand slam with her debut novel, The Girl on the Train. (See review: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2015/01/27/crossing-the-tracks-girl-on-the-train-by-paula-hawkins/) In my mind, Into the Water gets closer to a ground hit, runner to second. It’s interesting, it’s fun, it keeps your mind occupied. But it lacks the WOW of Hawkins’ first effort.

Into the Water opens in picturesque Beckford, England with the mysterious death of a local woman, she’s found floating in the pool which is the subject of her book in progress. “The Drowning Pool” is Nel Abbot’s exploration of the infamous river pool location of the deaths of many generations of “troublesome women.” These women died as a result of being sunk during a witchcraft trial, a suicide, a murder, a mystery.

The Duckingstool by Charles Stanley Reinhart

credit bettmann/getty images

No one quite knows what led Nel Into the Water. Not her daughter Lena. Not her estranged sister Jules. Not the close-mouthed Detective Inspector or the newly-arrived Detective Sergeant, or the high school principal, or her teacher, or the mother of the fifteen year old who committed suicide in the pool only weeks before. None of them know but they all take over the narrative long enough to tell you what they don’t know and why.

Of course, once Nel is dead, Jules her sister must come back to the Mill House, the place where bad things happened when the two were teens. Jules returns to help Lena, Nel’s daughter, during the investigation.

. . . I heard the water, and I smelled the earth, the earth in the shadow of the house, underneath the trees, in the places untouched by sunlight, the acrid stink of rotting leaves, and the smell transported me back in time.

I pushed the front door open, half expecting to hear my mother’s voice calling out to me from the kitchen. Without thinking, I knew that I’d have to shift the door with my hip, at the point where it sticks against the floor. I stepped into the hallway and closed the door behind me, my eyes struggling to focus in the gloom; I shivered at the sudden cold.

Jules contends with her own past trauma, a ghost or two, the mystery of the present, an understandably-cranky teenager and the town psychic who appears throughout Into the Water every few chapters to mutter glumly to herself much like the homeless lady who I encounter every few days wanting to draw my portrait as a mermaid.

Part of the problem for me may have been that I listened to the book on audible and into the water.jpgrather than one reader, there were multiple readers straining to milk the melodrama from each sentence of Into the Water. For example, “No one liked to think about the fact that the water in that river was infected with the blood and bile of persecuted women, unhappy women; they drank it every day.”

Truthfully, I kept waiting for Into the Water to — you know — get good! but instead it just seemed waterlogged with too many potential tributaries and red herrings. Forgive the water puns, I couldn’t resist.

Despite really trying, the ending just didn’t meet my expectations. It must be hard to have a really great debut novel because then everything thereafter is measured by the first. I wanted Into the Water to be my first great beach read of 2017, and it’s fine, but it’s not the book I wanted it to be.

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If your book club does read Into the Water, and I would wager many will — it’s currently the #1 book in America and the screen rights have been purchased by the team behind La La Land —  the menu I would serve is inspired by the book.

Screwdrivers: OJ & Vodka

Watermelon Balls

Carr’s Water Crackers with Stilton cheese and Fig Jam

Cornichons (in a pickle — another pun)

Spaghetti Bolognese. Jules whips this up for Lena on a couple of occasions. I’ve never made it but it doesn’t look like a quick recipe. Leave plenty of time to develop flavor. Here’s the food.com version: http://www.food.com/recipe/traditional-spaghetti-bolognese-21242#activity-feed

MUSIC

Handel’s Water Music is appropriately titled but entirely too upbeat for this moody, dark atmosphere of Into the Water.

If you want to create a playlist, here are my suggestions:

Black Water, Doobie Brothers

Smoke on the Water, Deep Purple

The Hazards of Love 4 The Drowned, The Decemberists https://youtu.be/bRLSaBZV1Eo

There’s also a band called The Drowning Pool — I have no idea what they sound like but you could check them out.

Happy Reading!