________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 14 . . . . March 17, 2006


Thora: A Half-Mermaid Tale.

Gillian Johnson.
Toronto, ON: HarperCollins, 2005.
235 pp., pbk., $15.99.
ISBN 0-00-639386-1.

Grades 3-7 / Ages 8-12.

Review by Stacie Edgar.

***½ /4



The trouble with humans

Is that their legs do not have scales

Their feet do not have flippers

Their heads don't blow like whales

Their swimming is atrocious

Their voices sound like rust

Their eyes are dimmed by air and often
Blinded by the dust.

The trouble with mermaids

Is that their tails do not have feet

Their fins do not have toes

And their legs are obsolete.

Their running is atrocious

Their voices sound like rain

Their eyes are dimmed by oceans

And they like to drink champagne.

This is what I told a mermaid

Who came to ask advice

(She'd fallen for

A man named Thor

And wondered at what price):

Join Thora, the young half-mermaid, her mother, and her self-appointed guardian angel, Mr. Walters, on an exciting adventure around the world and to the little sea-side town of Grimli. As the fortune teller warned her mother, Thora must spend the first 10 years of her life on the sea and the next 10 years on the land. Torn between the two, the young girl tries to fit both into the world of her mother and that of her missing father. Thora's mother, Halla, was warned by the fortune teller that her romantic escapade with a human man would end up in heartbreak--and she was right. Halla was disowned by her mermaid family under the sea and abandoned by her husband. She is left to care for her only child, whom she doesn't know how to care for or feed. Mr. Walters, a visiting retired man of the world, volunteers his services and teaches Halla the kind of nourishment human babies require and encourages her to compete in swimming competitions, a natural for the mermaid, to support her and Thora. For 10 years, the three travel far and wide in her father's boat, the Loki, meeting new people and seeing the sights of the world.

     This unusual girl has a blowhole like a whale on top of her head and purple scales on her legs and feet. Thora wears "a special mermaid-disguising wet suit" called a Halla-Skin similar to her mother's that conceals her fish identity. She often regales her friends with stories of her travels from around the world and sometimes reminds the reader a bit of Pippi Longstockings. Although Thora has a pet peacock named Cosmo, instead of a monkey, and is not super strong like Pippi, she often talks nonsense and has a happy-go-lucky attitude towards life.

internal art

     Thora gains independence from her travels so that when the ten years at sea are up and the three decide to return to Grimli, the home of her father, she is able to live on her own on the family boat. Halla must live in the sea on a rock not far from the marina, and Mr. Walters is called away on family business so Thora must live on her own with her pet peacock, Cosmo, on the Loki. The reality of Thora's mother is kept secret from the people of the little seaside town. In the absence of Mr. Walters, the townsfolk, especially the mayor's wife, Mrs. Grubb, feel that the young girl needs adult supervision, and Mrs. Grubb decides to make it her responsibility to find Thora a good home. She believes that all children need to be "socialized" and that somebody ought to teach her "how a young lady ought to behave." The arrangement isn't a match, but Thora makes two new friends, Ricky and Lynne.

     From the day Thora's father leaves Grimli, local entrepreneur and tycoon, Frooty de Mare, desperately tries to buy the lease for the pier where the Loki is docked. He sends letter after letter to Mr. Walters pleading for him to sell it, but each time, he is turned down. Frooty de Mare's goal is to buy up all the shorefront property to build his tourist empire. He aims to attract people from around the world, but the Loki and the Allbent Cinema, owned by the three Greenburg sisters, stand in his way. The sister trio, too, refuse to sell to the town shyster.

     Meanwhile, Thora becomes best friends with his daughter, Holly, and together with Ricky and Lynne, they celebrate "Everybody's" birthday with a party of music, food, and games on the Loki. They also help Thora find Halla when she mysteriously disappears. In an attempt to attract bigger crowds to the grand opening of his new Mermaid Cinema, Frooty de Mare kidnaps Thora's mother and puts her on display in a huge fish tank. With the help of the Greenburg sisters and their projectionist's ring, Cosmo cracks open the tank so that Thora and Halla can ride the whoosh of water "gently, sweetly, and carefully, like a giant's hand, releasing mother and daughter safely into the calm of the sea."

Half of the land. Half of the sea. Half dry, half wet. Human and mermaid. Thora. Me.

     This book describes many social aspects of a child's life. Although Thora is quirky and unconventional at times, many children readers may connect with the character because she is caught between two worlds--the land and the sea. Children whose families have experienced separation and/or divorce, biracial children whose parents come from different cultures, Aboriginal children who move into an urban area from a reserve, or any child who may feel caught between two worlds may find an affinity with this vulnerable, yet at the same time strong and sometimes courageous girl. Even if the reader has not experienced a drastic change in his or her life, most young adolescents at some point feel some kind of angst when they perceive themselves as caught between the external pressures of the world and the familiarity of their home. Although this is a fun and entertaining story about a high-spirited young half-mermaid, many children can connect with Thora on different levels and see how, even though her life is not ideal and there isn't necessarily a perfect storybook ending, she keeps her head up and is optimistic about all life has to offer her.

     Scattered throughout the text, author and illustrator Gillian Johnson includes whimsical black and white drawings that reflect the text. The beginning includes a map of the town of Grimli and descriptions and drawings of each of the main characters. As well, at the end of the book, there is a farewell letter from Thora to her best friend Holly de Mare explaining that they are off travelling the world again. Along with three picture books, this is Johnson's first novel. She grew up in Winnipeg and now lives in England and Tasmania with her family.

     Although Thora is a lively, entertaining read, some small details are overlooked. Thora was originally published in Australia, a country that normally adopts British spelling, yet the publisher has failed to include spellings of such words as colour instead of the American version "color," in the Canadian edition. Also, the fact that there is a "pizza-shaped hole" in the bottom of the boat for Halla to have access to Thora without it sinking is a bit of a mystery. Details like this can be overlooked the story can be enjoyed by young and old. Thora's bits of nonsense add to the whimsy of the story and somehow make you feel drawn to Thora even more. This book is an entertaining and fun read about an irresistible, likeable character whose story continues in Johnson's next book, Thora and the Green Sea Unicorn.

Highly Recommended.

Stacie Edgar is a student in the Integrated B.A./B.Ed. Education program at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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