The Swan Keeper is a historical, coming-of-age novel set in Northwest Montana’s Mission Valley in the late 1920s. It tells the story of Lilly Connelly, an eleven-year-old with a wild imagination and deep love for swans. 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.
Unfortunately, everyone, including the sheriff, her mother, sister, and her best friend, thinks that Lilly is reacting to the trauma and blaming Drake because of a previous conflict between Drake and her father. They believe that her father was shot by some hunter by mistake and that Lilly is trying to make sense of a senseless accident.
My thoughts on it
To me, this novel is amazing! Milana Marsenich is a talented writer, and her poetic style really hits the right note. Part thriller, part coming-of-age story, part magical realism, it is a sad, but well-written tale. The setting is presented through brilliant imagery, bursting with life – you can almost feel the cold and wilderness of the Mission Valley.
The Doubt of the Swan Keeper
What I liked the most about it is the psychological aspect. Imagine a person has killed someone you love – you know who that person is, but nobody believes you. This is an issue that Lilly has to face and at a such a young age. After a while, it is only natural that she starts doubting herself, and then again having doubt in her own doubts. In such a situation, one can’t help but wonder what is real and what isn’t. To overcome this burden, she creates a fantasy world of her own, which includes her heroic sidekick swan giving her courage. At first, Lilly is just the swan keeper, a protector of wildlife. In time, she has to fight for the survival of not just her beloved swans, but also of her whole family.
As the story progresses, we get more and more irritated by the injustice and Lilly’s loneliness. We want to help her. Marsenich managed to capture the essentials of Lilly’s suffering soul, and this is what makes the novel so engrossing.
As Lilly is trying to cope with the harsh reality of a terrible tragedy that has struck her family, she also struggles with regular problems such as entering girlhood, having a first crush, and going to school. Thus, this novel is a bildungsroman of sorts.
This superbly atmospheric book full of menace and compelling characters explores many psychological and philosophical themes. I highly recommend it to everyone who likes a good psychological thriller and loves animals and wildlife.