Saturday, June 16, 2012

Keeper by Kathi Appelt

Sheree Fitch’s Sleeping Dragons All Around is a children’s picture book about a little girl tiptoeing through her house at night past eight sleeping dragons. She’s headed to the kitchen to get a big slice of “Mocha Maple Chocolate Cake.” It’s not really related to Kathi Appelt’s Keeper, but it’s a book introduction to Appelt’s novel, in a sort of roundabout way.

For years, I didn’t have any connection to the title, Sleeping Dragons All Around. I thought it was great, and remember having the picture book in the house, just sort of there, with a title that sort of rolls around and sticks for a while, even if you’re not opening it up to read the story. And then I took a Romantic lit course and read “The Eve of St. Agnes” by John Keats and found these lines buried near the end:

She hurried at his words, beset with fears, 

For there were sleeping dragons all around, 

At glaring watch, perhaps, with ready spears---
Down the wide stairs a darkling way they found.--- 
In all the house was heard no human sound.

Maybe it’s just because I probably went ten years without that connection, which doesn’t feel like a missing link until you find the way to put it back together again, but that made a little window that looked out from a contemporary children’s book into the early 1800s.

Kathi Appelt’s Keeper does something similar. It starts with a few lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each,
I do not think that they will sing for me.

I love that these are books for children and adolescents that make an introduction or connection to some really great, canonical poems, making them accessible without allowing them to take over the content of contemporary work. I really like the idea of adolescent and young adult books as being windows into canonical novels, and using windows to view canonical texts while keeping a more contemporary, and sometimes relevant, focus for younger readers.

The Prufrock poem is especially relevant to Keeper, a book about ten-year-old Keeper who’s waiting for the blue moon, an occasion that draws mermaids to the sandbar on the Texas coast. Her own mermaid-mother swam away when Keeper was three, and this is a chance for her to make things right again. Keeper draws a fairy tale world around its protagonist, one that begins to crack apart as she gets trapped in the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico with a seagull named Captain and BD (Best Dog). The chapters are short and to the point of being almost lyrical, and the characters are as diverse and memorable as the story.

There’s Dogie, who lives next door and owns Dogie’s Beach Umbrella and Surfboard Shop, “which had at one time been a yellow school bus but was now simply known as ‘the Bus.’” Keeper is his “waxwing,” helping Dogie wax and surfboards that come into the shop – “He didn’t pay her much – a cold Dr Pepper, plus one dollar for waxing a short board or two for waxing a long board – but she was proud of her work.” And then there is Signe, who Keeper lives with, who makes gumbo for the blue moon in a big pot on the stove. The morning that the book begins on shows Signe “standing there with her wooden spoon in one hand. Signe’s bright white hair stood up in spikes. Keeper loved Signe’s hair. According to Signe, her hair turned white when she was only fourteen, right before she left Iowa. It had been snow white ever since.”

When Keeper’s sympathy for the crabs that are destined for the gumbo disrupts the entire blue moon day, she sets off on an adventure, ill-fated and dangerous. But she can’t help saving them from the boiling stew, wondering, “Was this what it was like to have mermaid blood running through your veins?”

The focus on childhood and adolescence in Keeper is almost heartbreaking, the breaking down of fairy tales and legends and stories that become protective and safe like a blanket to a young girl who has been left by her mother. Appelt’s writing shines here, just as it did in The Underneath, as she tells a story that is nothing like anything else that has been told before. 

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