Although I was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago and Salt Lake City, I have always been drawn to the ocean. I don’t remember how old I was the first time I visited the sea, but I fell in love with everything about it. I’m also not sure when my interest in mermaids began, but I do know that it was well before Disney’s The Little Mermaid was released. My mom has told me that she read me the original Hans Christian Andersen tale when I was little, and that the story made me cry. This may have been my introduction to mermaids, and I have been fascinated with them ever since.
Because of my love for the ocean and all things mermaid related, Erika Marks’ The Mermaid Collector was a must read for me–as soon as I could possibly get my hands on a copy. I fell in love with everything about The Mermaid Collector, but especially the fictional mermaid legend of Cradle Harbor, which inspired the entire town to celebrate a mermaid festival year after year. The town of Cradle Harbor is so vividly written that I am ready to pack my bags and move right in.
Tom Grace, the newest resident of Cradle Harbor, becomes the talk of the town after he inherits the lightkeeper’s house and refuses to cooperate with the historical society’s desire to open his new home to public tours. The whole town is curious to know why the house was left to a couple of brothers they’d never heard of before, and what their relation to the previous owner, Frank Hammond, might have been. Tom sets out on the wrong foot with almost everyone in Cradle Harbor, with the exception of Buzz Patterson, Frank Hammond’s grieving best friend. Like Tom, Buzz and his stepdaughter, Tess, know what it is like to be the subject of gossip in Cradle Harbor.
Though Tess gives Tom an icy reception, he is attracted to her. She wants nothing to do with him at first, but soon finds herself returning his affection. Conflict brews for Tess and Tom with the arrival of Tom’s troubled younger brother, Dean, who does not know the whole story behind their mysterious inheritance.
Through alternating sections set in different time periods (1887 and present day), Erika Marks gives her readers a fully fleshed out understanding of Cradle Harbor, its residents, and the historical events that inspired Cradle Harbor’s Mermaid Festival. In 1887, Linus Harris and his wife Lydia move into the lightkeeper’s house, and Linus becomes caretaker of the lighthouse. Linus was once a sailor, but gave up the position he so loved because of his wife’s fear of the ocean. However, Linus goes back out on the ocean with a few other Cradle Harbor men, and they become lost. When all of the men are found, they are not the same people they were when they left. Through Linus’s logs, the town learns that they believe they were seduced by mermaids, and that they eventually returned to the sea to be with them. (Note: The reader will have to decide for him- or herself if the men really were lured to the ocean by mermaids, or if they suffered from too much exposure to mercury.) In the present day, residents and tourists alike celebrate the Mermaid Festival to honor the memory of the men lost, and the tragic fate of Lydia, Linus’s wife.
Each of Marks’s characters is beautiful and flawed, though not every reader might find them relatable. It was hard for me to understand Tess’s hardness due to her mother’s drowning; her relationship with her mother was very different than the one I have with my own mother. However, like most of the characters, I have grieved for the passing of loved friends and family members, so I relate to them in that way. The attraction between Tom and Tess made total sense to me; they are opposites in so many ways, but each needs more of the strong qualities that the other possesses. Though he’s not present for most of the book, Dean (Tom’s younger brother) is very influential over every single decision that Tom makes, dating back to their tragic teen years. The only character whose presence puzzled me was Beverly; she is an outsider who has come to Cradle Harbor in search of answers about Frank Hammond that I felt were not explored to their fullest potential.
The Mermaid Collector doesn’t tie everything up neatly in a bow, leaving all of its characters problem free and resolving their hardships. It does offer a sense of hope and peace, though I was left pondering where these characters might be in their lives and their personal conflicts within the next few years. Perhaps one day Erika Marks will revisit these characters and the mysterious, haunting setting of Cradle Harbor.