How do you measure the value in a book?
Is it by style? Theme? Originality? Or perspective? There are so many different aspects to measure a book, and I’m sure everyone has their own criteria, which is why there’s no concrete rule of thumb on how to measure a bestseller. But, I’d like to work and create my own, using a teacher’s favorite tool: a rubric!
Okay. This may hurt some feelings. A lot of teachers feel attached to the four scale rubric; I don’t. And, I feel like I have to do 5-scale because this is usually supported by the 5-star rating system that multiple companies use to rate their products, including Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Goodreads.
This may take some time…
Okay. So this is pass 1 for the rubric. It hasn’t been edited, and it may change over time, but this seems like a good start from which to examine the latest book I finished: The Seas by Samantha Hunt. And of course I’ll support my decisions with proof from the book.
WRITING STYLE 5
I feel that The Seas deserves a 5 because much of the book is written with highly selective word choice and sentence variation. Readers can see her extremely particular word choice throughout the book since she continuously uses the mermaid metaphor to develop physical and emotional imagery for the protagonist’s actions and reactions. An example of this can be seen below.
“Jude?” I turn and ask, but before I can get any response the water rushes in like a couple of police officers with their blue lights flashing, with their guns drawn. The water rushes in like a couple of police officers would rush in to surround the smashed-up car of some drunk people who are evading the law. The water is like two officers, one on either side of the car both with guns drawn and pointed at me. (171-172)
Here, we can see Hunt’s careful word choice. She has selected each word so that it 1) reveals the imagery of the action sequence of this scene and 2) co-develops a reaction through the use of the ocean as a metaphor. Although we see the action of officers collecting the protagonist to arrest, we feel the reaction of the protagonist as she feels herself drowning in the sense that she’s lost control. Because Hunt is doing so much within so few of lines, I believe this is a strong scene deserving of a high score, and because most of the book is mirrored in this example of style, I believe it earns a 5.
For me to rate this, I want to first consider what we know about the character, which is a lot. I know the protagonist’s whole family: how her mother was raised on a deaf island; how her father left eleven years ago, losing himself to the ocean—not sure whether because he’s actually a mermaid or committing suicide; and how her grandfather is obsessed with typesetting and font. I know the protagonist’s history on the island, how she’s always felt alienated and picked on. I know how she wants Jude to return her love. I also know she believes herself to be a mermaid, and so likes to participate in mermaid-like behaviors, like soaking in her bathtub or pretending to breathe water. We see this with details within scenes like,
I was thirsty. It was just floating there. And anyway, that word is mine. (22)
I sometimes sit underneath our small boardwalk. It’s out of the weather, away from anyone who might recognize me, close to the ocean. There I feel as though I am among people, while in actuality I am still alone. (25)
There is a window over my tub and when I was younger, I’d lie down in the tub instead of my bed. My mother would wake me and make me move back to my bed but finally she gave up and let me sleep there. I liked it in the tub because from the window I could see stars and the ocean and sometimes, if it was calm, I could see the stars in the ocean. (31)
We also see throughout the novel her obsession with the word blue. She loves words with multiple definitions, and I wonder if blue is to signify something else. But, I’ll look into that later. What I believe is that because this character has been overwhelmingly developed, shown so many details about her life, that the perspective requires a 5.
Going a little bit out of order here…but, I have to be honest, I’m not quite sure what to make of the theme, or even the book now that I’ve finished it. I thought I knew where it was going, and then I didn’t, and where it ended left me feeling very confused. But, I swear this has something to do with the theme.
Let me look at some common motifs within the book first.
- Her father “left,” or died—it depends what you think.
- She experiences unrequited love with her older friend, Jude.
- Her grandfather’s obsessed with words, including their sources and definitions.
- Her family’s experience with alcoholism.
- Jude’s post-traumatic stress disorder from the Iraq war.
- The protagonist’s belief she’s a mermaid.
- How she feels ostracized and alienated.
- Her blindness, or difficulty in seeing.
Well, now that I’ve had time to outline and contemplate, I believe I’ve figured it out, so now, let me show you her story. It’s beautiful. SPOILERS!!
This is a story of grief. Back when the narrator was eight, her father left home, his footsteps following from the edge of the beach to the sea, to where most of the town imagined he drowned since he was never seen of again.
My father was a dark, slender, and quiet man…He drank a lot—so did my grandparents…When my father disappeared I blamed his disappearance on his drinking. I was only eight at the time. Since then I have changed my mind. (59)
The original story is that her father must’ve committed suicide, possibly due to his drinking, but because of the overwhelming sadness and harshness of this reality, the characters within the book prefer to choose a different one, with each character experiencing their own version of reality in order to give them some sense of happiness.
People often suggest that it would be better if we knew for certain whether or not my father is dead. That, to me, seems cruel, as if they want me to abandon all hope. (32)
But to abandon all hope means to accept his death, and the narrator cannot accept this and neither can her family. Looking at her mother, we can see no one wants to accept this. Instead mom believes he’s walked out, and so she stands watch for his return.
My mother is still in love with him even though he’s been gone eleven years. She says, “Nothing has changed between your father and me. I just don’t see him as often.” As though he moved to Tallahassee or somewhere else way down south. (61)
A few old houses in town have widow’s walks—the small square rooms or flat platforms built into a roof so that women left behind by fishermen husbands could look out to see if their men’s ships were ever going to come in. We don’t have a widow’s walk, so my mother sometimes just sits on the roof with binoculars around her neck. She acts as if she’s just looking at the ocean, the birds, or the waves but I know she is looking for my father. (110)
But again, this is only one version of the story: her mother’s, which the narrator is not interested in. Instead, she chooses changes her story so that her father has returned to the ocean since her and her father are mermaids. This is belief stems from a story that her father used to tell her when she was young, back when he was alive.
He meant we were from the ocean. “You’re a mermaid,” he told me at the breakfast table. “Don’t forget it.” A corner of toast scraped the roof of my mouth when he said it. The cut it made helped me to remember. So I don’t think he’s dead. I think he is in the sea swimming and that is kinder than imagining his boots filling up with water, and then his lungs. (32)
This feels like a momenta of her father. If she believes in herself being a mermaid, she can still retain a memory and a connection with him, even if he’s gone. But, to hold onto this belief from when you were eight to when you’re nineteen for eleven years, this can only look one way to an outsider.
I’d rather be subject to the ocean’s laws than the laws that apply to young girls trying to become women here on dry land…Sadness can be like a political cause, almost, or a religion or a drug habit…I think of the carny girl’s teardrops and I can’t believe that is her purpose…I suspect that she wants her boyfriend to stay in prison for a long time so that every year she can add another drop until they reach below the collar of her shirt and everyone who sees her will say, “My. There’s a sad girl.” (62)
At this point, her grief has driven her crazy in the eyes of the town, so most people have ostracized her, leaving alone and lonely. It is not too long later, when she is twelve, that she finds someone who can be a friend, if only because he reminds her of her father.
There he is, I thought and meant my father, because I had been waiting for him to come back….Then Jude was coming out of the water and I thought, in quantum physics there must be a possibility that all the molecules of my father would find each other again and would walk out of the water looking at least a little bit like him…Tall and dark, he looked like my father. There at that moment, I started loving Jude. (23-24)
But the man is old, much older than her, and the man, Jude, realizes what this will look like in the eyes of the town, in the eyes of morals, court, her parents.
“I feel like your name was on that list. Like you are off limits. Like if I say your name or if I touch you, I’d get court-martialed, found guilty, and executed.” [Said Jude] (107)
And so, he refuses to accept her love. At this point, I wonder why she doesn’t stop loving him, knowing that he will never return her love. How does she keep this love alive from when she was 12 to 19 knowing it’s never returned? She even acknowledges in the book that she will never abandon even given this situation.
In the short time that I waited for Jude, not too long, the dragonfly matured enough to fly away. So I hated it because I knew that would never happen to me. (122)
So why does she stay? Is it because Jude resembles her father so much? Is he her replacement for a father figure? Or, is it because she takes after her father? Does she want to nurse him back to health, like her father’s done for animals and bugs?
He’d sit quietly, stirring a mixture of warm water and sugar to nurse back to health a sickly black fly…These are the parts of [my father] I find impossible to cut myself loose from. They are beautiful qualities. (61)
We see her stick with Jude even after he tells her he doesn’t love her, that he never will, so there is a sense of dedication that isn’t within normal limits, so I do believe that is some additional purpose driving her to stay with him. And, my belief is that she’s trying to fix him. I believe she is trying to nurse Jude back to health, given his post-traumatic stress disorder, by giving him all her love, realizing that if she can’t, the ocean will take him back, just like it did with her father.
He stares like water in a way that lets me know that if I don’t do my job as a mermaid, somebody else will, a bounty hunter from the ocean. (96)
This fits in with the narrator’s mermaid story because as her mother mention’s mermaids can only kill. This is perhaps speaking in metaphor that the narrator can’t save Jude, that it’s impossible.
“Why would you want to be soulless? It’s a sad story. This Undine.” She holds up the book. “She falls in love with a knight named Huldbrand and Huldbrand loves Undine too, but he also loves her stepsister, Bertalda, a mortal. So Undine’s uncles, he’s a river spirit, is disgraced. He takes Undine back down under the water and tells her she must kill Huldbrand or else he will.” (111)
But the narrator swears she’ll be a different kind of mermaid. She’ll save him, and we follow her attempting to fix him throughout the story until the end, where her and Jude have too much to drink. And, when Jude finally works up the courage to tell her his war story, he finally works up the courage to love her. Unfortunately, except, this pushes Jude off the deep end with him committing suicide at the end, using the same way as her father. A repetition in events. And again, when the narrator doesn’t like this version of Jude’s story, she changes it.
Jude killed himself. The possibility that this might be the truth swoops near my head like a bat at dusk, a bat that soon flies off in the other direction uninterested in me. / Jude’s note. I smile. He really fooled them. (210)
I believe in this note, he explains his suicide, which the police say was by drowning, maybe saying why he couldn’t stay and love her, perhaps using the reasons he had outlined before. But because the narrator didn’t like his story, she changed it.
Words have more than one meaning all the time. Just like Jude’s note. (212)
And we know she changes words all the time, because she mentions other authors doing that before, which is seen earlier within the book.
I am not dead yet, though I feel so bad I might be close. I imagine that even if a sailor lived through the worst storm and spoke to the papers, the sailor might report, “The sea said ‘I get you’ and did not mean ‘get’ as in ‘understand’ like I initially thought.” The newspapers would translate what the sailor had said into, “The first wave snapped the pilothouse in two.” (83)
And so, she changes Jude’s story to that of him melting, since his chest was made of ice, because of her mermaid father not allowing them together, eerily similar to a story her father had told her much earlier in life.
“In fact,” he told me whispering, leaning forward and tucking his can of beer on the floor beside his armchair, “I traded my rib cage for a chunk of ice instead.” / This explained a lot. From my father I got many recessive genes. Fair eyes, fair skin, and the mermaid part. The surrender places. I did not get a torso of ice, though sometimes it feels that way, as if something solid that once was there melted now and still aches with the vacancy of him when it rains. (59)
This reinforces how the narrator sees Jude as a replacement for her father, and how when we read this story, we’re able to see how the narrator uses stories to cope with grief, love, and death. In summary, this story is of how the narrator uses stories to cope with loving her missing father, and the plot follows how the narrator uses this strategy in action with a figure similar to that of her father. We see this theme specifically in a scene where the author has trouble describing her love for her missing father, which we see in the excerpt below.
“I don’t think you’ll believe what I found,” he says. “A word, can’t pronounce it. We don’t have a word to match it but we should. We should develop it tonight because the word means, “the feelings one retains for someone he once loved.'” (124)
We see these feelings throughout the novel, as the narrator grasps to hold onto the love for her father, by using the story of her being a mermaid, a childhood story that her father used to love to tell her. We see this throughout the novel, perhaps as a worry that she will one day forget what her father looks like, due to quotes like these.
“Daddy,” I say, because I haven’t seen him since I was eight years old…My eyes are getting dry but I’m scared he’ll disappear if I blink. (126)
This story is definitely a sad one. And, I wonder if it is a story not only of love and grief, but of one of sanity. I imagine when she was younger, imagining herself a mermaid was a good coping mechanism for a while, especially when she was younger.
When I was younger I’d go down to the water and each wave would ask in a thug accent, “You want I should take care of those kids? You want I should tell your father?” (72)
But I also wonder if she lost herself along the way.
Can you “breathe” underwater? Are you really a mermaid or does it just feel that way in the awkward body of a “teenage girl”? I breathe water into my lungs. I wait for my test results. (136)
“I don’t want to be the mermaid who kills Jude, Mom.” / “Oh,” she says in a voice that sounds like the voice of a mother whose daughter just broke something, a piece of china or crystal and she is trying not to get made about it. But in this instance, though, the thing that my mother believes is broken is me. (133)
I guess in a way, grief will always break you, but maybe this story asks, what do you do to cope? Because this story pulled me along so intensely, I am definitely giving its theme a 5. It had a strong drive. I loved the story that came out of examining its motifs and plot, and I really feel like this is a story I will want to pass along to those who have lost someone.
Now here me out. In the beginning, I thought this story was highly original, and I still like to argue that it is, but when looking at my rubric, I believe that because this book encompasses some motifs that have been used previously, it’s not necessarily perfectly original although the plot certainly is.
One of those previously-used motifs is the time-old mermaid motif. This story has been overused in stories like The Little Mermaid, The Thirteenth Year…just look at Goodreads list of mermaid books. It’s no surprise that people like to hear the story again; just imagining you’re unique in some way is a comfort.
A second common motif is to externalize your grief through some sort of fantasy. I don’t know how much I can find on this, especially since it took me a while to think of it, but I’ve written a short story version of a similar tale. So, I don’t think I can claim this as original in my perspective since technically I’ve heard of it before.
A third is her family’s experience with alcoholism.
I would argue that this story is still unique if for the fact that it balances reality and fantasy, and you don’t see a lot of books that can balance it that artfully.
Hunt, Samantha. The Seas. Portland, OR: Tin House Books, 2018. Print.
Quotes I haven’t used but that I like:
blue – 1. having the color of the clear sky or the deep sea 2. melancholy 3. puritanical 4. obscene 5. faithful 6. said of women, especially those with literary inclinations / If one word can mean so many things at the same time then I don’t see why I can’t. (216)
“It’s the ocean. It’s coming up behind us,” I say. I watch as the blue rises up like a tidal wave so quickly that I am certain it will catch up with us soon…I don’t think we can outrun the ocean but I’ll try for your sake.” (171)
And the red bird sings, I’ll be blue because you don’t want my love. (75)