Franny Billingsley,
The Folk Keeper
(Atheneum, 1999)

Corinna, a foundling, wants to be a Folk Keeper, one of the many individuals who sit and wait in the dark of a cellar to feed the Folk, absorb their anger and keep them from ruining crops, spoiling the milk and killing the livestock. But only boys are permitted to be Folk Keepers, so she crops her silvery hair and becomes Corin when she is moved to the Rhysbridge Home.

Life at the Home isn't perfect, but she is content enough as the Folk Keeper. When she is 15, however, Lord Merton arrives at the Home, accompanied by his wife, Lady Alicia, and his cousin, Sir Edward. In a private audience, the dying man reveals that he knows who Corinna is and insists that she is to be the Folk Keeper at Cliffsend, his estate by the sea.

Still in the guise of a boy, Corinna goes to Cliffsend. The Folk there are particularly fierce, and she fears becoming overwhelmed by their power. She is also drawn to the sea, with its seals basking on the rocks, and she finds some small pleasure in sailing with Finian, Lady Alicia's grown son, although she scarcely lets on her enjoyment. When she discovers a mystery at the heart of Cliffsend, a mystery which surrounds Lord Merton's first wife, Lady Rona, she is driven to uncover its secrets, even at her own peril. Finally, she is forced to confront the mystery within herself: why her skin is so translucent, why her hair grows two inches every night, why a few drops of her blood can stir the sea.

The story unfolds through entries in Corinna's Folk Record, the journal she must keep of Folk activity. Her complex character evolves through the narrative, until the Folk are no longer the central focus, either for the reader or for Corinna. Corinna's perceptions shift subtly and convincingly as she discovers the choices before her. At the same time, the suspenseful tale moves swiftly, catching up the reader. Billingsley successfully meshes plot and characterization, and she adds new dimension to the selkie legends which are at the core of the story.

I was disappointed that the committee which selects the Newbery Medal completely overlooked The Folk Keeper. With its rich, resonant language and its original fresh voice, it deserves acknowledgment. This is Billingsley's second novel, and she has firmly established herself as a writer to watch. Read The Folk Keeper and find out why.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]



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