The Swan Keeper by Milana Marsenich is a coming of age study in grief, perseverance, trust in oneself, and justice. Lilly Connelly is on the cusp of young adulthood when tragedy hits her family. Lilly is positive she knows who the perpetrator of this crime is, but no one will believe her, not the law, not her sister, Anna, not her best friend, Jerome. For comfort, she turns to her and her father’s shared love of trumpeter swans and sets out to prove herself right and get justice for her family.
The Swan Keeper takes place in the Mission Mountains of Montana in the late 1920s. Lilly’s family lives in the Mission Valley where her father, a photographer, documents the trumpeter swans. During this time, trumpeters had been hunted to near extension. Passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 created a federal law against the hunting of trumpeters. By 1932 fewer than 70 birds were known to inhabit the world. The reader is thrust into a world where Lilly, her father, the sheriff Charlie West and his son Jerome are working to stop folks hunting trumpeters in the area, and someone is, someone Lilly and her father know about, but can’t yet prove.
We are given no rules with regard to grief. We all have our way of coping with loss. Some of us cry and rage, destroying items that remind us of the person we lost. Some go catatonic, unable to face what has been taken. Others still enter a fantasy land where they talk to the dead and fly with the swans. Each character deals with their grief differently, and some go so far into themselves that the reader begins to fear they may never find their way into the light again. For Nell, Lilly’s and Anna’s mother, I feared she would forever live in her mind, cut off from the world and her daughters. Her behavior was so troubling at times it reminded me of painful parts of my own childhood. Knowing how that turned out, I didn’t have high hopes for Lilly and Anna. But I needn’t have worried. Instead of Marsenich ending her book like Stephen King is prone to doing (no one lives happily ever after), she wrapped everything up in a tidy package. I was both glad and annoyed by this outcome. Up until the last few pages, the book was true to life; tragedy strikes, justice comes but at a price or not at all, and people live on, but carry scars from the past. The Swan Keeper finished up in such a clean swept slate that I wanted to cry foul. I didn’t see Nell pulling herself together after her mental slide into oblivion, and Charlie West finally coming to Lilly’s aid threw me for a loop. And the sudden support from characters who had given Lilly none for most of the book didn’t seem reasonable.
Marsenich’s writes The Swan Keeper in a dream-like style that borders on poetry. Set from the point of view of Lilly, we see into the mind of a young girl who believes everything her parents have told her, only to discover that all the magic they claimed real is fairy tales and that true pain exists in the world. We all know that children grow up and that the process can be painful. We see first hand how horrible these growing pains can be. The death of magic and the harshness of life. Lilly’s transition from childhood is suffocated in grief. What should be a clumsy awkward phase a layered with hurts, both mental and physical. Her fantasies of swans, especially Pearl, the injured trumpeter that Lilly helps nurse, might seem silly flights of fancy, but Marsenich’s prose tethers Lilly’s visions to a girl who is deeply hurt.
The Swan Keeper is one of my favorite books of 2018. I was often reminded of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. Many of the themes walked the same trail: not being heard, being dismissed, being too young, etc. The Swan Keeper is an excellent coming of age novel. Lilly’s strength and perseverance to find and bring to justice the man who hurt her family is awe inspiring. Not many adults would be brave enough to do what she undertakes. Case in point, Lilly is the youngest character in the novel, and she is the only one naive enough to even try.