The Mermaids of Lake Michigan
by Suzanne Kamata
Elise Faulkner is more at home in the waters of her beloved Lake Michigan than on land where her beauty queen mom is always on her back about her lack of a social life; her sister is dating the boy of her dreams; her favorite penpal–the one who wrote about mermaids in Ghana–has gotten married and ended their correspondence; and no one’s allowed to talk about her glamorous great-grandmother, the deep-sea wreck diver. Elise is biding her time with books until she can flee. But then crazy Chiara Hanover pops into her life, as does Miguel, a mysterious carnival worker whose dark future has been predicted by a gypsy.
“A lyrical, compelling coming-of-age story with magical elements.” — Kirkus Reviews
“Elise Faulkner drew me into her head and heart so subtly, yet with such force, that by the end I was cheering her on. Suzanne Kamata has woven an honest, aching coming-of-age story that will speak to women everywhere.” ?Kristin Bair O’Keeffe, author of The Art of Floating and Thirsty
“Suzanne Kamata has written a novel of great charm and depth, with a bit of magical realism laced with humor. Elise, its engaging narrator opens her arms and her heart to life’s complexity, including family secrets and escapades with a magnificent new bestie–the irrepressible Chiara. When an unlikely romance unfolds with a mysterious drifter/musician, Kamata steers us expertly into darker waters. A jewel of a novel, set on the shores of Lake Michigan with Kamata’s signature compassion for all of its characters.” — Margaret Willey, author of A Summer of Silk Moths
“The Mermaids of Lake Michigan is a luminous coming-of-age story about a teen struggling against social norms and her own family legacy to find her way. Elise’s journey is hardly the stuff of fairy tales, as she ends up far from home, and far from the self she meant to be. Raw, real and even a bit magical.” — Kristina Riggle, author of The Life You’ve Imagined and Vivian in Red
“Suzanne Kamata’s new novel, The Mermaids of Lake Michigan, is a beautiful story about a teenage girl who must learn to balance her idealism and belief in mermaids with the harsh realities of growing up and trying to find people to love and trust. A page-turner set in the unstable years of the 1970s, I devoured it in one sitting. It brought back memories of my own adolescence and took me beyond, in that way all good novels do, into the wonderings of circumstance and the choices we would make if faced with hard decisions. Suitable for teens and adults alike, this novel will teach readers to believe in magic even in the face of tragedy.” — Cassie Premo Steele, author of Beautiful Waters
It was Mrs. Churchill. She was the only person I’d ever seen with a parasol. She held it in one hand. With the other, she was hanging onto the fingers of a girl about my age with hair the color of orange Kool-Aid. I wanted to take a pen and connect the freckles on her face into funny constellations.
We’d already had our talk about the birds and the bees. At that time what she’d said had so repulsed me I’d vowed to stay a virgin forever.
Most kids had decorated the inside door of their lockers with magazine pictures of teen idols or big bold words cut from advertisements: Fresh! Just do it! Sexy. The only picture in Matt’s locker was a sepia-toned postcard of Einstein on a bicycle.
I’d had a taste of adventure and I knew I wanted more… In the meantime, I was under house arrest.
I was terrified of telling my parents… the biggest scandal in the family since my great-grandmother, the flame-haired Margaret Stieg, in her fur coat and pearls, had hopped onto a train with her (alleged) bootlegger boyfriend, and disappeared out west, where there was hardly any water. Would my name be banned from conversation one day too?
I vacillated and wavered in how to rate this amusing and insightful coming of age tale. I adored the vast majority of this keenly observant and emotive first person narrative and while reviewing my notes and favorite quotes – I and found myself smiling. So shrugging – I have to give this tale a full five-star rating for the quality of the writing alone. Ms. Kamata has produced an outstandingly accurate depiction of the time period and fully captured the thought processes, outlook, and constricted life experiences of a young girl living in a small town during the 1970s. I know this as fact and entirely all too well, as it felt like she was pulling snippets from that dusty file cabinet tucked away in the corner of my brain that is untidily packed with childhood memories. In reading Ms. Kamata’s engaging words, vivid memories and feelings that I had not summoned for ions began to surface and wash over me. Like Elise, I also came of age in a small town during the 70’s, with one sister and extremely religious and uptight white conservative parents. Although I must confess, Elise’s family was actually much nicer than mine ever tried to be.
For much of the story I could have been Elise, so it quickly became personal and very real to me. I definitely recall thinking and feeling in a similar manner as detailed in her entertaining observations; the embarrassing mistakes and sense of confusion that occurred from the literal mindset of youth, as well as feeling painfully constrained by the rigid expectations of over-controlling parents as well as being totally lacking in useful life experience due to a complete dearth of choice, options, or exposure. I also recall the sense of being listless and bored stiff by the bland and colorless routine of a tightly religious and narrow-minded small-town community so that anything new or different had an immediate taint of the taboo so of course to me it was instantly thrilling, highly exciting, alluring, and exotic; which and also led to new and refreshing flights of fancy and hopeful daydreams all featuring me in the starring role. Ms. Kamata’s craftily written tale adroitly detailed and portrayed that era and phase of life in a remarkably deft manner.
Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She is most recently from Lexington, South Carolina, and now lives in Tokushima Prefecture, Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications including Real Simple, Brain, Child, Crab Orchard Review, and The Japan Times. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/ Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival Award, and winner of the Half the World Global Literati Award for the novel.