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.
I 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.
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.
I 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.
Helena 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.
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!
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!