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Volume VIII Number 3 . . . . October 5, 2001
Early on, a friend noticed that her hair had a greenish glow; in fact, in certain lights, all of her skin looked bluish green. Her girlfriends thought it was the play of late-summer light, but on the third visit there was no mistaking that she was indeed changing. When her father clasped her hands, he was alarmed at how rough they felt. He held them up to kiss and tried not to gasp aloud at the sight of small barnacles growing on her knuckles and wrists. A friend spied the same spread of barnacles on her bare feet. By the end of that visit, many saw that the barnacles were growing up her arms and legs.There's something about the sea that seduces the senses of those living along its shores. Perhaps it's the mysterious depths or the water's ceaseless motion, its restless, even fickle nature. The result: legions of sea-inspired superstition, legend and lore, more than can possibly fit in a single book. Undeterred, journalist and writer Ann Spencer has pulled together an admirably balanced assortment of sea tales in her book, Song of the Sea: Myths, Tales and Folklore.
The pieces in this collection originate from a variety of shores and beliefs, and the familiar mix with the unfamiliar to help ensure a wide audience. Most of us know of Poseidon from Greek mythology, and of Jonah and the whale from the Bible. But who are the goddesses Tien-Hou (Chinese), Sedna (Inuit), and Salmon Woman (Native American)? Spencer has chosen stories representing the riches of two of our home coasts, east and west, as well as of the world at large. She describes each story's origin in an introductory passage and marks it in the table of contents as well. These thoughtful additions, and the bibliographic list of sources at the end, make Song of the Sea both a valuable resource and a satisfying storybook.
The stories also span a wide range of tastes. Protective maiden goddesses and omnipotent gods share space with eerie water wraiths and fiendish sea monsters, bloodthirsty pirates and merfolk both malevolent and benign. There's poetry and trivia, pirate and "salty dog" talk, and a sample of the sea chanteys and tall tales that kept a sailor's monotony at bay.
This variety is perhaps what keeps the reader faithful through the seven chapters. Carelessly thrown together, legends can begin to sound alike, each but a regional variation on the same questions and themes. Each of Spencer's mindfully chosen pieces, however, maintains a distinct identity and flavour.
Legends are by nature classics, and any good book on the topic must recognize this fact. Song of the Sea defers to this timeless nature with language that is rightly, slightly formal and a look and feel that are pleasantly traditional--for a book like this, the creamy, textured pages and imitation deckle-edges are a better match than the shiny, sleek pages of most of today's books. The text itself is uncluttered, adorned simply with a wave or fish symbol at the start of a story or section, and well complemented by the clean lines of illustrator Mark Lang's remarkably detailed drawings. The cover is arresting, a collage that acts as both a showcase for the riches of our collective imaginations and a promise of the varied and fascinating content to come.
Cora Lee is a Vancouver, BC, writer and editor.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.