I almost didn’t review this book; in fact, I’m still sort of torn about putting up a review of it. If you’re ignorant of the possibility of controversy inherent with this title (like I was before I read it), we’ll get to that. Let me discuss what I like about it first.
Keeper by Kathi Appelt is a beautifully written story that encapsulates one day in the life of ten year old Keeper, a part of (to borrow a phrase from Wendell Berry) “the membership” of “the world unto itself” at the end of Oyster Ridge Road, Tater, Texas. Oyster Ridge Road, which runs out to the Gulf of Mexico, has a population of four: Keeper; her surrogate mother, Signe; Dogie, Keeper’s employer and father figure; and Mr. Beauchamp, Keeper’s grandfather stand-in. There are a couple of dogs in the mix, as well as a wily seagull named Captain. Oh, there are crabs, too, and as Keeper tells herself over and over again, “Stupid, stupid, stupid crabs!” Keeper inadvertently starts a string of disasters which affect all of her loved ones on Oyster Ridge Road when she frees the crabs Dogie caught for Signe to make her special blue moon gumbo: she breaks Signe’s woooden bowl, the only thing she has from her childhood; she burns the gumbo and ruins Signe’s pot; she causes both Dogie’s ukelele and Mr. Beauchamp’s nightblooming cyrus plant, objects of great affection from their earlier lives, to be broken. Keeper, a great believer in magic and mythical creatures, sets out in Dogie’s little boat to find her mother, Meggie Marie, whom Keeper believes to be a mermaid. She believes Meggie Marie can set things aright.
This book is complex in its telling; Appelt tells and retells the same scene over and over again, from the point of view of all of the humans and animals of Oyster Ridge Road. There is nothing straightforward about it, and because of that, I would consider this a literary novel for middle grade readers. Appelt captures the magic and allure of the sea in this story, and I think this might be what I like best about it. Reading this made me really want to go to the beach, although to be true to the story I’d wait until the summer crowds go back home so I can experience the beach like Keeper, Signe, Dogie, and Mr. Beauchamp do: as a member of their rather solitary lives, instead of just a vacation getaway. Appelt is adept at creating atmosphere. Here are a few excerpts that showcase her talent:
Keeper was still smiling when she walked to the stove and stood next to Signe, who was stirring the bubbling liquid for her blue moon gumbo. The smell filled the room. Keeper thought that if she held out her tongue in the steamy kitchen, she’d be able to taste the spicy mixture without even putting a spoonful in her mouth. (21)
Now a fear as deep as the ocean zipped through Keeper’s body, her biggest fear ever, one so deep, she knew not to ever, ever say it out loud, not ever. And then today, it crawled out of her like an ugly toad: If a girl’s own mother can swim away, what would keep everyone else from leaving too, especially if that same girl caused so much trouble? The toad of fear made a big, fat cccrrooaaakkkk right in Keeper’s stomach. (105)
Obviously, there are some deep and troubling issues presented in this story, including child abandonment and the effects of war. Although Appelt handles them with something of a light touch, reading about these issues still made this mother’s heart ache. I’m not sure that most middle graders are prepared to deal with some of this messy stuff, although I do think this book mostly handles well the idea of family being those who love and care for you.
This, of course, brings me to the controversial part: homosexuality is presented in this story, and it’s not just given a nod. There are a couple of chapters (short chapters, but chapters, nontheless) devoted to a fifteen year old Henri Beauchamp’s love for a boy named Jack. The story gets sort of weird magical here, too, and the whole plot thread of Keeper believing in mermaids gets mixed up with Mr. Beauchamp’s story and the two threads are tied together nicely but fantastically at the end. Myth and magic are alive and well in this story, and while I didn’t feel that it was as dark as Appelt’s Newbery honor-winning The Underneath (linked to my review), I’m still not sure what to make of it.
Reading this story has me pondering something about children’s literature. While I’m not in favor of censorship, I do practice my parental responsibility of censoring what my own children read, to a point. I am in favor of censoring what they read until they are old enough and mature enough to handle that responsibility for themselves (or at least, that’s my goal–I realize that they are human beings who will make their own choices when they’re old enough to do that). Still, though, what is it that we (I?) expect from children’s literature? Do we expect it to be pedantic and prescriptive–“act this way”; “do this”; “be that.” This is eactly what we don’t like about most Christian fiction, right? (I’m merely stating what I believe are others’ objections to Christian fiction here; it’s not a genre I read a lot of myself these days, although I have read a lot of it in the past.) I am certainly NOT arguing that reading about a homosexual relationship (no matter how “tame” and “sweet” the description of it is) is something that middle graders should read about; as a Christian, I believe that homosexuality is a sin. (I’m not even arguing here about the “sinfulness” of one sin over another; we all know that sin is often played out, even in children’s literature. I just happen to believe that this particular sin can have more widespread repercussions than other sins.) I just wonder what exactly we expect from children’s literature. If we no longer want it to be prescriptive, maybe we do want it to be descriptive. But do we want our nine year olds reading this particular story? I don’t think I want mine to. It’s true that relationships like this exist, and there’s no way in the day and age in which we live to shield our children forever from this knowledge, but I want to do what’s right about it.
Well, this started out as a somewhat innocuous book review and turned into what could become a train wreck in the comments. I’d love to have your opinion, especially if you’re a Christian. My practice is to use the Bible as the final authority in my life, but I welcome discussion about this topic. In other words, I’m not interested in debating homosexuality, but I am interested in discussing how we introduce these issues to our children. (If you’re new around here, please be advised that inappropriate or disrespectful comments will be removed by the blog owner. 🙂 )
The bottom line about the book: I think it’s beautifully written, but I can’t recommend it.