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Francesca Forrest
Amazon Digital Services, 291 pages

Pen Pal
Francesca Forrest
Francesca Forrest has lived near the coast of Dorset, England, and by a bamboo grove in Japan, but has spent the last ten years within walking distance of the Quabbin Reservoir, in Massachusetts. Her short stories and poems hide out in various corners of the Internet.

Francesca Forrest Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sherwood Smith

Em Baptiste, twelve years old, throws a bottled letter into the Gulf Sea. It ends up at an island on the western edge of the Pacific rim, in the hands of a woman suspended over a volcano as a political prisoner. Kaya, lonely and desperately worried, writes back, and so begins an unlikely correspondence that has consequences rippling outward.

Em lives in Mermaid's Hands, a small community of floating houseboats rising and falling on the gulf tide. The people exist on the margin, regarding sea detritus as harvest as they constantly repair their weather-battered houses. They regard themselves as sea folk, protected by the Seafather beneath the waves. They have their own history and traditions as well as a rich mythology.

Kaya, well educated (including years of botanical research at an American university) is more skeptical about the mountain people's own deity, the fierce Lady of the Lake, a volcano goddess; her island's more numerous lowland population controls the government, which has forbidden the mountain folk's language and customs. Kaya, apolitical, tried to arrange the traditional celebration of the Lady to show the mountain children what it had been like when she was small, sparking a furious purge by the government who sees her action as insurgency.

Em, with a brother in prison, is instantly sympathetic; there are strains in her family before a hurricane hits, nearly wiping out the community, and Kaya, helpless to do anything in aid of deteriorating relations between the mountain and lowland folk, takes an intense interest in Em's life, leading to unexpected consequences for both.

Told through letters, journal entries, news articles, and secret government memos, the story unfolds with inexorably rising stakes. The layers of liminality in this novel begin right with its appearance; it's difficult to ascribe a convenient marketing niche. It is not a kid's story, though there is a kid central, but it could be read by kids, especially the smart ones with unquenched curiosity about the world. But among the many layers there exists a poignant love story that might sail over a child reader's head; it will take an adult reader to perceive the many types of faith represented here: in lovers, in friends, in family, in community.

Em exists just this side of adulthood, dealing with questions larger than she is; Kaya, suspended between lava and sky, exists as a symbol between two peoples, one of whom the government is doing its best to force into conformity. Mermaid's Hands is liminal in every possible way, and it, too, hovers on the end of extinction.

Then there is the question of reality. How is reality defined? After seeing a vision, Em writes, "I know it sounds like it must of been a dream, but I don't think so. It was extra real. It felt more real than lots of regular days have felt."

Kaya's steadily worsening situation jacks the tension high, but it is the indefatigable, generous-hearted Em who really carries the book. Her faith in the Seafather, her family, her community, in the goodness of nature and humanity, and the doubts she struggles with as each is threatened, is expressed in the metaphor of sea and shore, boat and bird. Helped by her practical, good-natured best bud Small Bill, her asthmatic sister Tammy, her family and friends and one sympathetic teacher, Em moves through life wrestling with change, and in turn, affects everyone whose life touches hers.

There is humor and wonder, high tension and profound grief -- altogether a vivid, memorable book that is one of my favorite picks for 2013.

Copyright © 2013 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at

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