Book Review: The Swan Keeper

(Milana Marsenich, Open Books, 2018)

by KATHLEEN MULROY

Lilly Connelly is The Swan Keeper in Montana author Milana Marsenich’s elegiac new novel. Lilly, an imaginative young girl who lives with her parents and older sister in the Mission Mountains of Montana, becomes the self-appointed protector of the magnificent, threatened trumpeter swans that raise their young cygnets in the cold mountain lakes near Lilly’s home.

Lilly sees herself as almost one of the flock, for her mother had always told her that when Lilly was born she had “pale white hair and a moon white face; the daughter of a swan.”

When someone begins killing Lilly’s beloved swans, their deaths transform the lives of Lilly, her family, and the whole community. Now Lilly must rely on her wits, instincts, and the survival skills her Pa taught her, as well as the help of her best friend, to stop the perpetrator of these heinous acts and try to bring him to justice.

The reader will be drawn into Lilly’s story with the novel’s first sentences: “When the fall air came in crisp and fresh, the bare-bone leaves sang to Lilly. She tilted her ear to the wind and listened.”

This is a child who is sensitive and deeply attuned to the natural world. Smart, stubborn, and determined as well, she must learn how to deal with anger and frustration as she comes to terms with her family’s tragedy and the changes it brings.

Marsenich has a wonderfully rich way of describing the beautiful Mission Mountains, the trumpeter swans, and the other wild creatures of that land. She brings to life the post-frontier people who lived there, too: hardy folks who often struggled just to survive the harsh conditions.

The novel is plaintive, even haunting, in its tone, but Marsenich manages to project a sense of optimism about life’s possibilities even amidst sadness.

The author’s strong connection to and passion for her subject matter resonates throughout the novel. On her dedication page, she cites as her inspirations the Montana Waterfowl Foundation, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Wildlife Management Program, and “all who worked so hard to reintroduce the trumpeter swan to the Flathead Indian Reservation (and to) Montana, Wyoming, and North America.”

The Swan Keeper, Marsenich’s second novel, was published in 2018 by Open Books (www.open-bks.com). Western Writers of America selected her first book, Copper Sky, as a Spur Award finalist for Best Western Historical Novel.

Marsenich lives in northwest Montana near Flathead Lake, at the base of the Mission Mountains. She has an M.Ed. in Mental Health Counseling and an MFA in Creative Writing. Marsenich has had her stories and articles published in the magazines Montana Quarterly, Big Sky Journal, The Publishing Stone, and Feminist Studies. One of her short stories is included in “Montana, Warts and All: The Best from Our First Decade.” MSN

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