“The Marsh King’s Daughter” by Karen Dionne delves into what life is like for a child of a long-term kidnap victim. Anyone that has wondered about Amanda Berry or Jaycee Dugard should read this story. These women were kidnapped, raped and bore a child while being interned in a prison of hell. But what happens to the child conceived under these conditions?
The novel opens with the line, “But I won’t tell you my mother’s name. Because this isn’t her story. It’s mine.”
And that is how readers meet Helena, the child imprisoned with her mother. Although for many years she did not even know this reality. The author does a marvelous job allowing Helena to come to terms with reality, progressing from idolizing and imitating her father to realizing he is a cruel narcissist and a control freak. A sense of eeriness is added as she tells her story, going back and forth between her captive life and her current one. The psychology, violence and wilderness setting all are intertwined.
“I lived on the peninsula in Michigan a long time ago, although I never hunted and fished,” Dionne said. “I researched on You-Tube and Googled it. My husband and I homesteaded in the wilderness when my oldest daughter was six-weeks-old during the 1970s. We lived in a tent and carried water from the stream. The scene of Helena trudging across the frozen Marsh in winter is something I did many times. When I write about what it is like to wash diapers by hand in a bucket I have been there/done that. I knew exactly what it is like and it is not fun. Eventually we left the wilderness for practical considerations, our daughter going to school and my husband’s job.”
This is the ultimate love/hate story between a child and her parents. By beginning each chapter with a section of the fairy tale “The Marsh King’s Daughter” by Hans Christian Anderson, the author formulates a connection between Helena’s life and this tale. She had little use for her mother while growing up; yet, as she grew into adulthood had faint memories of this tale her mother had told her. After reaching adolescence she realized that the violence and cruelty of her father was not normal, and that her mother attempted to insulate and protect her.
It became obvious that her feelings toward her parents were very complicated. Born two years into her mother’s captivity, growing up with her father, Jacob Holbrook, who taught her how to fish, hunt, and survive in the wilderness without electricity and heat. The Upper Peninsula in Michigan sets the tone for the novel. Living in a cabin in this remote area the author provides graphic details including how to skin and hunt a bear, deer, and beavers. Her father used his background of part Native American, part Finn, to teach her skills to be self-sufficient, making her his “little shadow.”
Helena knows nothing of the outside world except through her 50-year-old National Geographic magazines until at the age of 11 she sees some children up at the falls. Wanting to connect with people, she creates these imaginary friends, Cousteau and Calypso, who act as her sub-conscious. With their help she realizes that her father is a savage. She must assist her mother escaping the abuse and put her dad in jail.
Years later, she finds out her father has escaped leading to her hidden identity, as the Marsh King’s Daughter, becoming public. Helena knows only she has the skills to track and find the survivalist, Jacob who has entered the Marsh Lands again. While hunting him memories come to the surface and they are not all bad. The Marsh King is not purely a figure of evil but a father who loves and is intimately connected with his daughter. Helena’s conflicting emotions about her father and her own identity make this a powerful story.
The author wants readers to understand, “Helena’s first 12 years, she loves her father unconditionally. After she leaves the Marsh, she hates him and blames him for her lacking in social norms and technology. She put herself in her own witness protection program to lose her identity and get away from her dad. Yet, when searching for him she realizes she still loves him. Helena does have a good heart but is a bit of a narcissist like her father. Her tough-as-nails attitude was influenced by him. I want to convey no one is all evil and all good. Readers will hopefully experience a range of emotions from sympathy to hate. I want people to understand that once a decision is made in your life you need to take responsibility. Helena never told her husband of her past life and almost lost him. Her mother would have never been captured if she refused to go up to the kidnapper and ran home instead.”
Because the plot is so realistic readers will have to remind themselves this is a work of fiction. Interestingly, the cover only has the title on the edge and not on the actual front of the book. The added feature of having Dionne weave the connection between Helena and the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale made the story even more fascinating and dark.