The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne Book Review

Last summer, the upcoming movie adaptation of this book, with Daisy Ridley and Ben Mendehlson as the stars, was filming for two days at a local conservation park. I’ve gone on walks through there thousands of times. It was all over our local news that this was happening. The day before filming, my mother insisted on bringing me over for another stroll, and there were vans and trailers and organizers everywhere. It was a surreal experience seeing film crews getting ready to do the shots they needed. I hope to one day be a part of something like that. So of course I had to read the book that inspired the movie where I am going to be looking carefully to see if I recognize any of the wildlife.

Now, The Marsh King’s Daughter is a title that has been done before. Hans Christian Andersen about a young girl named Helga discovered by a stork and raised by Vikings. And the book more than a few times stops to tell us this story also. The book was published over 150 years ago, so safe to say no lawsuits will be arriving. But this isn’t an expansion of the story; it’s about another person that became known as The Marsh King; Jacob Holbrook. This is the (thankfully fictional) story of how he kidnapped a young teenage girl one day in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, asking her to help him look for a lost dog only for her to find he was bringing her out to a remote cabin with no one who knows where she is.

Whatever he did to her, he convinced her she could never leave him, and they have a baby together named Helena (pronounced Hell-ay-na). Well, Helena survived for years under the care of her mother and father but primarily her father, who taught her how as Native Americans it’s their destiny to live away from others. He also taught her how to fire a gun, how to skin, how to make fires, how to swim…but a long-ago wake up call caused her and her mother to escape him back to civilization, and for the kidnapping her father has been in prison for the last 13 years, sentenced to life. Helena manages to make a life for her own despite growing up only under the education of National Geographics magazines and not knowing anything about the world besides what her father taught her but manages to fall in love, start a business selling jams and jellies of wild fruits with the tricks she picked up, and have two little daughters. But one day the news is turned on to find her father has murdered two guards and escaped, and Helena knows a man like him is capable of and willing to do anything. Especially to her, since she’s the one who put him behind bars, and will now have to do again.

I’d say picture The Glass Castle but as a complete horror story and that’s just about what Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter is, except it makes the real Rex Walls look reasonable compared to Jacob. I’m looking forward to Mendehlson’s interpretation of the character. Dionne has crafted a real psychopath in Jacob, someone who had an idea of how his life should be and did whatever he could to drag a family down with him.

But now it’s time to get to business. No grading system could properly explain my feelings about this book. It is every grade I could give at once. Throughout I was reading some of the most amazing and most agonizing subject matter. Yet whenever I was reading the latter, a rough truth about how some people are raised led me to realize sometimes people do stupid things because they were raised radically to the point where they don’t understand what is so wrong about something even if it’s staring them in the face how someone is getting away with an atrocity.

Let’s start with what I really liked. To do this sort of book you need a knowledge of what is out there in the wilderness, what is needed to survive and what in that list the wilderness can’t provide. Dionne’s beautiful writing and prose remind us of the beauty and danger of living in a remote cabin, left to fend alongside the bears and wolves for meals and shelter. And as the book goes on, and you realize what Helena and her father both are capable of, I was more and more anticipating when they’d confront each other and what would go down. This book has the air of perhaps not having a happy ending. There’s a chapter that ends with what we presume is the dead body of someone Helena is really close to. It psyched me out, but it got the job done of making me squirm.

The main issue I have with the book is the pacing. It commits to a formula I’ve actually done in a book I wrote too. (Even more coincidentally, it also had 27 chapters.) It involves a back and forth between Helena’s present and past. Dionne’s strategy of intertwining the tension as we learn how bad things got for Helena and her mother as we also follow her to try and find her dad before he can terrorize the life she’s made for herself is one that definitely works within this story multiple times. But too often they also noticeably don’t.

Too many times new chapters begin and cut off before a part in the previous chapter has a chance to exhale. That is called a cliffhanger, obviously. If anything they did their job in keeping me invested. But it was more annoying than exciting. Because the chapters about her past are mostly scattered around in her childhood years, we aren’t in any hurry to return to that to find out what happens next. Many times Helena was getting to a point in the present time that we’re more interested in than a new adventure with her and her father in the past. Or we learn a reason to really fear and hate a character, and then the book cuts away to a different time where everything’s good again, and it feels almost intentionally uneven.

Something else noticeable is Dionne seems a lot more interested in the story of Helena’s life in the marsh rather than the present-day hunt, sadly to a point where the book nears completion and you realize not much is going on in the story most of us picked up to read about. There could’ve been more adventure, more horrors, more bloodshed perhaps.

And here’s something that’s both amazing and agonizing about this book. It presents the story of a child who grows up so different than the lives of others that she assumes the only way to get a wife is to kidnap her, that it’s okay to torture if a proper punishment sends the message. She was given so many childhood memories that were both incredible and because of her father, that she has an attachment to him that causes so much denial that even when things are clearly bad AND there seems to be a way to escape him, she and her mother just don’t do it. The both of them are just too domesticated. And yet…I felt so many times the two of them were letting him get away with too much. The mother in this had me slapping my head a few times. And yet, victims of abuse have minds that think differently, right? Become used to their surroundings that the fear of running away from them outweighs dished cruelty?

The Marsh King’s Daughter is a book that brings a whole new meaning to Stockholm Syndrome and childhood manipulation. You won’t ever forget it, because you’ll likely swoon over it as much as you want to yell at it. I would recommend it, with some hesitation, if you want a suspense novel you won’t be able to put down for the last 100 pages. And during them it’s filled with many moments where you wish you could just yell at the characters to do what needs to be done. It’s not your average read.

If you like this, I’d try The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and Be Not Far From Me by Mindy McGinnis

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