Helena has a secret that she’s hidden for fourteen years. But at the beginning of The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne, the secret escaped from prison and is coming for her. The prisoner is her father, the man who kidnapped her mother and held them as captives in his remote cabin until they managed to run away. Now that he’s free, Helena knows that he will come for her and drag her back to the marsh where she was born and raised.
While the immediate plot of The Marsh King’s Daughter plays out over two very tense days of dead cat-and-mouse tracking, Helena’s mind constantly wanders back to the years she spent in the marsh with her father. He taught her everything she knows, but he’s also the reason why she doesn’t really fit into the wider world. She knows how to snare, skin, and eat animals—but she wasn’t taught how to play with other kids, respect private property, or deal with people who aren’t sociopaths or their terrified victims.
The Marsh King’s Daughter is ultimately a book about how people shape each other, for good or ill, even though Helena’s father tries to be the ultimate backwoodsman. He wanted a family in his swampy kingdom, so he kidnapped Helena’s mother and raped her. Once Helena was born, he attempts to shape her into someone as competent at backwoods living as he is. Even though Helena is favored over her mother, it’s clear that no one is to cross the man. Helena knows now that her father is a monster, but she retains a bit of her fearful, awestruck love her father. He’s the one who made her who she is.
I’m glad that Dionne chose to center The Marsh King’s Daughter on Helena rather than her parents. While other similar stories chose to understand the Stockholm Syndrome of the captive or the inhumanity of the captor, I don’t think I’ve seen one that explores the dilemma of a child who grew up not knowing that her family was not normal. (Beth Lewis’ stunning The Wolf Road might come close, however.) Even years later, Helena is torn between her parents. It’s fascinating to watch someone struggle between two “rights”—social “rights” of justice and law versus filial “rights” of a family that outsiders can’t fully appreciate. Between the tracking and the ethical wrestling, I couldn’t put this book down.