The Swan Keeper is an historical, coming of age novel set in Northwest Montana’s Mission Valley in the late 1920s.
Lillian Connelly loves trumpeter swans and vows to protect them from a hunter who is killing them and leaving their carcasses for the wolves and coyotes to ravage.
On her eleventh birthday Lilly’s family visits the Cattail Marsh to see the newly hatched cygnets. The family outing turns tragic when Dean Drake shows up with his shotgun and fires on not only the swans, but on Lilly’s family. Unable to prevent tragedy, Lillian witnesses Drake kill her father, injure her mother, and slaughter the bevy of trumpeter swans.
The sheriff, Charlie West, thinks that Lilly is reacting to the trauma and blaming Drake because of a previous conflict between Drake and her father. Lilly’s mother, sister, and her best friend, Jerome West, the sheriff’s son, all think the same thing: that Lilly is trying to make sense of a senseless accident.
Left alone to bring Dean Drake to justice, Lilly’s effort is subverted when Drake woos her sister, courts her mother, and moves into their home.
Who cannot love a girl who will risk her life:
1. for the sake of the truth and;
2. the lives of innocent trumpeter swans?
She has guts; some would say gall, but Lilly will not be chastened. Too young, she is forced to grow up and face the harshest realities of life, and that no one takes an impulsive eleven-year-old seriously.
As in Copper Sky, the natural beauty of the Montana landscape shines throughout the narrative. Picturesque mountains and vivid descriptions set the scene of Montana in the 1920s. The changing of the seasons mark the passage of time as Lilly transitions from a child into the headstrong, confident young woman she is meant to be.
Nothing is impossible for this young girl. When everyone refuses to believe that she witnessed her father murdered by the man he feuded with, she sets out for justice against all odds. But Drake is on to her. What lengths will he go to, to ensure that no one believes her?
Having already read Copper Sky, I know the high standard of writing and character development from Milana Marsenich. Once again she has proven her ability to write strong, memorable characters. During a time when a family is tested to its limits, the bond holding them together proves that blood is thicker than water. Two squabbling sisters are able to pull together when it matters most. Hardship and struggle are themes that Milana can write incredibly well. Death, loss and sad kind of acceptance are all feelings we can relate to. Experiencing such a tragedy from the perspective of a child makes those feelings all the more profound.
Lilly’s youthful determination and Drake’s easy arrogance are but two examples of how each of these characters is brought to life. These two are opposing forces of nature and they catalyze one another. The depth and complexity of humanity are explored in each and every character, though. I’m a firm believer that Milana’s experience in mental health therapy lends a greater understanding as to how we, as people, tick, especially under stress.
The Swan Keeper is a beautiful novel. Tragic and heartfelt, yet with its own admirable beauty and appreciation of nature, the novel is not just an entertaining read. It’s a journey.