Last evening I finished reading a book that struck every emotional chord I have and even some I didn't know I had. The Old Mermaid's Tale, by Kathleen Valentine will join my collection of books I know I will reread more than once.
Clair Wagner is the central character in this early 1960s story that plays out into the 1980s. She is a product of her Ohio farm upbringing: sweet, innocent yet outrageously curious and fearless. She can hardly wait to leave her boring, land-locked home for college on the shore of Lake Erie.
The Great Lakes hold many mysteries and inspire superstitions that started with the earliest inhabitants: Native Americans. Many hundreds of ships have gone down in The Lakes leaving haunting, painful legacies. The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was supposedly strong enough to withstand anything the lakes could throw at it, but it, too ended up on the bottom of Lake Superior.
With Lake Erie a firmly, and strongly established part of the story, the author takes her reader into the world of fisherman, sailors and those who love and worry about them. With the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, ships from around the world now had access to ports in the Great Lakes. Clair is swept into this world not kicking and screaming but with her eyes and arms wide open to whatever adventures it might offer.
Ms Valentine does such a beautiful job of character and situation development that the novel seems more like a biography. It flows naturally and yet still surprises and enlightens. In truth, I am still moved to the point that I need time to process this story; something I haven't felt since reading Cutting for Stone.
Having grown up on the shores of one of Erie's sisters, Lake Michigan, I GET the fascination with and craving to live on the water. I've never sailed on any of the lakes though I have enjoyed day sails on the Chesapeake Bay. I confess that I feel a little intimidated at the idea of going out in anything smaller than an air craft carrier on one of the Great Lakes. Come to think of it, that could be scary, too.
Summers of my youth were spent hanging out at the beach. I remember looking out across the water and watching a training ship from Great Lakes Naval Station, just north of us, being engulfed by black, lightning-streaked storm clouds. My friends and I watched for what seemed a very long time until it reappeared on the other side. Then, the rains started pelting us and lightning strikes became a little too close, so we headed for home.
I do believe that my fascination with this book is not just because of my love for The Lakes. It is a beautifully written love story set in a dangerously beautiful setting during a tumultuous time in American history. It won't surprise me a bit if The Old Mermaid's Tale soon tops best seller lists. It really IS that special!