CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 41. . . .June 20, 2014
The Shadow Mother.
Seán Virgo. Illustrated by Javier Serrano Pérez.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood, 2014.
64 pp., hardcover, $21.95.
Grades 6-8 / Ages 11-13.
Review by Janet Eastwood.
Those were happy hours, full of laughter and teasing, but then [his mother] would sigh and turn away from him and walk in the river till the water flowed round her waits, and stand looking out to the sea. She beat her hands softly upon the surface and called out in words he did not understand, though their music found its way into his dreams.
In this poetic recreation of the selkie myth, a boy who grows up in a port town goes to sea. For 40 years he is a sailor, eventually becoming master of his own ship, and sails the seven seas. One night in the far southwest islands, he spies a beautiful girl and, eventually, learns how to keep her – by stealing her shadow. The laughing girl becomes a silent woman, bearing the man’s child in the port town from which he came. Their child grows up in an unhappy house, with a father who is merry away from home and gloomy in the house, and a mother who is loving and wild with her son but warily listens for her husband’s footsteps. The boy, who dreams of the sea, one day finds his mother’s shadow rolled up in his father’s old sea trunk. He accidentally pierces his finger on it and is seized by a fever which he cures by walking into the ocean waves with his mother’s shadow and swimming away as a fish.
The writing is dream-like and evocative, the sentences sometimes broken over multiple pages like poetry or picture-books. The characters are not named, nor are their exact ages given, although the man is approximately fifty when he takes the girl by force, since he is at sea for forty years and retires to be harbour master after he steals her shadow, and their child is 10 when he finds his father’s sea chest in the attic. The setting is vaguely northern European during an era of sailing, before the slave trade ended. This setting likens the selkie myth with colonial history, particularly as it is in the south and west islands where the boy finds the girl whom he seizes and carries away.
Unusually, the protagonist at first appears to be the boy who later steals the laughing girl: nearly the first half of the book details this boy’s life from childhood through to adulthood and the birth of his own son who then becomes the focal character of the story, as indicated by the shift in language as all other characters are re-identified according to their relationship to this new character: “the boy” becomes “his father,” and “the girl” becomes “his mother.”
The difficult themes raised by the selkie story tradition – forced marriage/rape, abuse, an unhappy family, a child torn between parents of two worlds, abandonment – are delicately touched upon here, present yet in a way that allows readers to see what they are ready for. This is achieved, in part, through the author’s careful act of balancing readers’ sympathies among the characters. At first, readers follow and empathize with the boy who becomes a sailor. Then, when he has kidnapped the girl, readers see how this evil has harmed him, as well – their child perceives how his father is a different man at home than away, that he is merry with old sailors but gloomy when he returns. The text does not excuse what the man does, but presents his crime as one of ignorance and passion, and one for which he also pays a price. Greater empathy, of course, is reserved for the woman who displays classical signs of abuse: she doesn’t sit to eat with her husband and child but creeps around the house “like a shadow”; she is depicted as meek and unhappy and very gentle; and she walks for hours by herself by the water; she walks into the water and cries out in words that her son does not understand but dreams about; and she listens quietly for her husband’s footsteps as he returns to the house in the evening.
The words also preserve her wildness, her Otherness. The child is shown as torn between two unhappy parents, both of whom “sometimes” go on adventures with him; his father, to the harbour with other seafaring men; his mother, to the wild places where the two of them hunt, most often for fish in the stream, fish which they then eat raw. The narrative does not follow the mother’s independent and pre-marriage life as it does the father’s, but reveals, in subtle strokes, the suffering she endures, torn from her own family and world and unable to return.
Here the text departs most strikingly from the selkie tales because the woman never does return to the sea as she does in most traditions. In this version, it is the child who finds what he has dreamed of by taking his mother’s shadow (not her skin, as in the myths, and not a seal but a fish) and quenching the fever that burns him up by entering the water and being transformed. Implicitly, the mother is, thereby, trapped permanently in her unhappy marriage. However, this solution is presented in the text as a break from the cycle of abuse. The father, as a child, had taken his own father’s sea chest and gone to sea, leaving his mother behind as he fulfils his dream of becoming a sailor. The sea-woman’s child, in turn, opens his father’s sea chest, but he takes only the treasure within (his mother’s shadow), not the chest, itself, and goes to sea. Unlike his father and his father’s father, who sailed atop the sea, the sea-woman’s child swims in the sea, part of the ocean in a way that his naval ancestors could not achieve. Like his father, he likewise abandons his mother to fulfil his dream, but this dream is achieved by becoming what his mother, rather than what his father, had been.
The illustrations are distributed throughout the text in two ways, first, as regularly-sized half-spread drawings primarily in black and white, surrounded by white space. These gloomy illustrations are angular and feature large hands, outsize humans, fish, and tend towards the symbolic rather than to what the words describe. Secondly, the illustrations appear as small, slightly more colourful sketches interspersed above or below the words. These sketches are poignant, dream-like impressions that hold the emotions of the story in a few light lines. The latter type of illustration feels more fitting to the words of the story and occurs more frequently in the second half of the tale which focuses upon the child of the sea-woman and the land-man.
Janet Eastwood is a student in the Master of Children’s Literature program at the University of British Columbia.
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