It took me about one hundred pages to get into this story. Engaging but slow, until one of Keeper’s “beasts,” a seagull, sees his friends and thinks Oh, happy day, calloo callay! Then I warmed up.
Keeper is a Peter Pan story. The night before her guardian plans to tell Keeper that there is no such thing as “magic or mermaids or talking crabs,” we discover that, in fact, there is such a thing. Appelt’s sequencing convinces readers to expect an absence of fantasy, but at the physiological moment, in Sharon Creech’s words, she “blurs the lines between reality and myth.”
Emotions run deep. Keeper asks, Did we love my mama? And Signe later realizes, “she had loved Meggie Marie. But she did not miss her.”
I adored the legends, the water stories, sting rays laying their mermaid purses, and meerfrau in the lakes in the middle of old German forests, and sailors spotting manatee and being sure of finding mermaids nearby. It’s marvelously woven, fine storytelling. Already, Newbery buzz is buzzing.
A big but.
I wanted to adore Keeper, wanted so badly to thrust the small blue book into the arms of waiting patrons. This would have been a year-end favorite, if not for a lovely old man, gentle and caring, “not her real grandfather, but … might as well have been,” who was once an adventurous boy sailing the seven seas. And who was once the lover of another boy. Their lost love is painted regretfully, as a beautiful, beautiful memory, glimmering with moonlight and roses and the intoxicating smell of night-blooming cyrus. Like Anne Shirley’s liniment-flavored cake, this sub-plot soured Appelt’s wonderful story.
Now look. I am not against gay characters. They exist in real life, they have a place in fiction. But when the reading level is 5.0, and the tale ends with two old men, sitting side by side in the warmth of the sun, holding hands, “like they did so long ago…” I can’t adore the story. No matter how perfect an ending, I just can’t do it.