The Marsh King’s Daughter is a psychological suspense and thriller by author Karen Dionne. I snagged a copy for myself after reading a review from A Book A Week by fellow book junkie Ethan because the book blurb was altogether too tasty, and his review sealed the deal. This is about a girl born into isolated captivity and not realizing it, learning how to track and play the part of predator, and using those skills to capture the man who gave them to her. G.P. Putnam’s Sons | June, 2017 | Hardcover | 320 pp
Helena Pelletier lives a normal, rustic life with her husband and two children – but she lied about her past. Her husband has no idea that she’s actually the daughter of the Marsh King, a notorious kidnapper, murderer, and rapist. He has no idea that she was the product of rape and grew up in an isolated cabin in Michigan’s upper peninsula, that her mother had been kidnapped, raped, and bore Helena while in captivity, or that Helena was raised to be an extreme survivalist and never saw another soul aside from her mother and father in the first decade of her life.
Helena eventually escaped the clutches of her narcissistic father and entered society as a damaged child. Her father was eventually caught and sent to prison. It took many years to heal and live a normal life, and that included changing her name to escape a constant barrage of media coverage and public reminders. But she did it. She was moving on. She sold homemade canned jams and jellies to local stores, had a wonderful family, and was largely forgotten by the media. Until her father escaped.
The Marsh King had murdered two prison guards and escaped back into the same marshes he had hidden in for over a decade. And when the police show up at her door, her secret is exposed. Helena knows that no one will be able to catch her father. He is as good as gone. But she worries that he might come after her, he might come for her family. She could hide and disappear again, but then she would always be looking over her shoulder. No one will be able to catch him, no one except Helena herself. He’s good at hiding and evading – but she’s better. She was taught by the Marsh King himself.
“But I’m no longer this adoring child he used to manipulate and control. Thinking so is his second mistake. I will find him, and I will stop him. I put him in prison once; I can do it again.”
The Marsh King’s Daughter flips back and forth, telling two stories of past and present. The meat of the story involves the past and the way Helena was raised. She grew up adoring and venerating her father. He taught her how to fish, hunt, bait, trap, use a knife, and shoot with extreme precision, all at an incredibly young age. Attention or praise from her father was like a drug for her. They would play tracking games; he would hide and she would have to find him. But if she failed, the consequences would be cruel. His cruelty was insidious, including punishments that left her at the bottom of a well in the freezing cold and with glass, preventing her from sitting and resting, for days. He was an extreme narcissist, and everything revolved around him. But because she grew up in such an isolated existence, she believed in its normalcy.
While Helena is reliving the past, conflicted by the love that still persists for this Marsh King, she begins to track her father in the marsh. Gruesome discoveries prove that her hunch is right. The Marsh King isn’t trying to make a break for Canada and freedom, he’s coming for Helena. She’s walking into a trap.
This is one of the books that sucks the oxygen out of the room as you hold your breath at every turn of the page. It’s exciting, and real, and devastatingly honest with how a little girl will worship her father who manipulates what she sees and what she feels. She never knew she grew up in captivity. She only knew what he told her. And even when he was cruel, she only saw his punishments as a form of love. And since she had no connection to the modern world or any other people, she couldn’t see his faults. Even when her mother explained that she had been kidnapped, she thought this was completely normal. How else does one expect to get a wife? Her National Geographic books told her this was how tribal people got their wives.
Helena escaped from both his physical and mental hold, the latter taking much more time. But she did it. Still, she uses her backstory to illustrate how deep the manipulation went, and how someone like her could still feel love for this man. She also expresses gratitude for molding her into a strong, independent woman, one who can protect her family better than any police force could – probably even better than a witness protection program. He provided her with the tools and knowledge to bring him down. The hunter becomes the hunted.
I particularly enjoyed the snippets from Hans Christian Anderson’s short story The Marsh King’s Daughter which is about a little girl with two sides: beautiful and evil by day, ugly and sweet by night. Parts of the story are told through vignettes in chapter introductions, and the rest is remembered by Helena as she struggles against her suspicion that her father doesn’t truly love her, that what he does isn’t normal. It is used by the author and the main character as an allegory and comparison.
The Marsh King’s Daughter is a suspenseful read of the highest order!
The Marsh King’s Daughter
By Karen Dionne