The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne
“But I won’t tell you my mother’s name. Because this isn’t her story. It’s mine.”
The narrator is Helen Pelletier, married to Stephen, mother of two small daughters for whom she would kill to protect. And she might have to do just that.
“I was born two years into my mother’s captivity. She was three weeks shy of seventeen. If I had known then what I do now, things would have been a lot different. I wouldn’t have adored my father.”
Helen’s father, Jacob, has just escaped from a maximum-security prison, killing two guards in the process. Jacob, also known as The Marsh King, was sentenced to life in prison for the kidnapping and rape of Helen’s mother and the murder of an unfortunate visitor to their cabin. Jacob’s capture was the direct result of Helen’s escaping the remote, Upper Peninsula cabin where she and her mother had been living since Helen was born. Helen was 12 at the time of her escape. Her mother was 15 at the time of her abduction and 17 when Helen was born. It took two years for the authorities to capture Jacob.
“But I was a child. I loved my father. The Jacob Holbrook I knew was smart, funny, patient, and kind. He took care of me, fed and clothed me, taught me everything I needed to know not only to survive in the marsh but to thrive. Besides, we’re talking about the events that resulted in my existence, so I can’t very well say I’m sorry, can I?”
The Marsh King’s Daughter is two stories intertwined. Story one is about Helen’s childhood. Jacob is a survivalist. Part native Ojibwa, Jacob is also a master tracker, hunter, trapper, and fisherman. Helen does not know that her mother is a victim – taken against her will. She knows only that her father is a harsh but effective teacher for her, while occasionally brutal to her mother who dares not venture much away from the cabin. Helen learns the craft of survival in the wild from her father and works hard for his approval and love.
“I didn’t know we were captives until we were not.”
A couple of chance encounters with the outside world trigger a cascade of knowledge and awareness that enable Helen and her mother to escape after 14 years of her mother’s captivity. That escape leads to the hunt, capture, and conviction of Jacob, The Marsh King. Who then escapes after 13 years of imprisonment.
“And now the prison population has been reduced by one. Which means in a few, short minutes, I am going to have to tell my husband the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about who I am and the circumstances surrounding my birth, so help me God.”
Story two is about Helen’s reflections on her upbringing and her actions to protect her family from Jacob once he has escaped from the prison in Marquette. She intuitively knows that Jacob will be able to evade the police. She also knows that he will head directly for her and her family. Helen also knows that she has never told Stephen one iota of truth about her background or her parents thus it is no surprise that when it all comes out, Stephen decamps with their children to his parent’s house
“One way to get my family back. I have to capture my father. It’s the only way to prove to Stephen that nothing and no one is more important to me than my family.”
Helen also knows the police don’t stand much of a chance in capturing him again, on his home turf. And off she goes into the woods, using all the skills her father taught her.
What Dionne has done, remarkably, is make Helen’s childhood plausible. She has captured the exact right tone of the daughter for the father, for the child’s desire and need for praise, accomplishment, and approval. She also has done enough research to make the growing up in the wild reasonable – how to sustain a remote existence, how survivalists survive, and how the land can be made to provide. Dionne has captured the ring of authenticity.
Dionne has done the same remarkable job with the adult Helen’s feelings for, and reflections on, her father. Helen is tremendously conflicted, and Dionne hits just the right tone of anger and yearning, as well as affection and repulsion that such conflict brings.
Dionne has created a harsh, brutal environment that will be foreign to most readers. But she has created this environment with descriptions of beauty, joy, and accomplishment. The prose is crisp and the action – back and forth in time – never sags or slows. Helen is both an admirable and sympathetic character, but one that never falls into self-pity or maudlin reflections. She was raised to be strong and continues to be strong as an adult.
My only minor objection is the denouement. Mostly telegraphed from a distance, even if Dionne adds some twists and turns. The ending does not diminish the overall effort, however, while being the most ordinary part of the novel.
The Marsh King’s Daughter is more than just a summer read. It has some depth of insight into aspects of the father/child relationship that are truly interesting. It is an action novel with enough peculiarities to make it engrossing to read.
I liked this enough to seek out Karen Dionne’s other novels.