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“Keeper,” by Kathi Appelt

I’m curious about Kathi Appelt’s process in writing Keeper.

The book, which is one of my top choices for the Newbery Award, takes place in what I guess would be called an inlet along the Gulf Coast of Texas. And the story is told – for the most part – to the ebb and flow of the tide. We get forward moving action… the tide coming in. And we get background information… the tide going out. The forward action takes place mostly on the water. Our heroine, Keeper, is out to find her mother, Meggie Marie, whom she believes is a mermaid and whom she hopes will help her sort out the trouble she caused earlier in the day.

Did Appelt set out to replicate the tide? Lots of novels use this technique. We’re placed in the middle of the story and then go back and forth between what happened before and what is happening now. But here it seems especially suited and after I finished the book, I could still feel the wave action.

Unfortunately, this pacing is also a bit of a problem for the book, which is so slow I have to wonder how many children will stick with it. I suppose they will want to find out what happens to Keeper and her “family.” And that may make them finish. Or it may make them just skip ahead to the ending. (It’s interesting that several times in the novel the characters also must wait. Keeper has to wait hours for the tide to be high enough for her trip out to the mouth of the inlet, and her family on the shore, once they realize she’s missing, are told to wait for emergency services. Is there a lesson about patience in here?)

Another problem is the magic realism. It seems Appelt is sending us a mixed message about what to believe. Signe, Keeper’s would-be mom on the shore, says several times that she has to tell Keeper the truth -- that her birth mother isn’t a mermaid and that magic and monsters and fairy tales aren’t real. And it’s to Signe’s real love that Keeper returns. But at the same time, we’re told the story of Jacques de Mer, a merman who turns up as the long lost love of one of Keeper’s neighbors. And we meet the old woman of the sea, Yemaya, who helps Keeper get back to shore. And there’s a small team of animals. Each has a story and each tries to communicate with the humans. Should we believe in magic or not?

Still in all, I liked Keeper. Appelt’s language is lyrical and the novel is filled with small gems (including allusions to Lewis Carroll’s Alice tales and the wonderful character of Dogie, a vet so shaken by the his time in the military, his voice still shakes) and, despite the story’s pace, it is one you’ll think about often after you’ve finished it.

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