Jane Yolen,
illustrated by Christopher Denise,
The Sea Man
(Philomel, 1997)

Jane Yolen explores a "what if" in The Sea Man, a gentle, poignant novella with a message that resonates through the ages.

It is a clear and sunny April day in 1663. A lieutenant on a ship, The Water Nix, at anchor off the coast sits on the deck and composes a letter to his daughter. Pieter, the cabin boy, approaches, and when shown the letter, is intrigued by the zee wyven -- the mermaid -- the captain has sketched at the bottom of the page.

The day is uneventful, but in the early evening, one of the sailors notices something strange. It is a man who appears to be drowning, although he does not call for help. The lieutenant orders the boat lowered, and the sailors discover first that the man is tangled in netting -- and second, that his lower body is that of a fish. The sailors start to push the man out of the boat, but the lieutenant gives the order to bring the sea man on board.

The sailors obey, but overall, the crew is not happy with this development, and they want to either sell him or kill him. The latter opinion holds sway, but the lieutenant and Pieter protect him. As evening wears on, the lieutenant discovers that while they are physically very different, he and the sea man share common ground.

The story is simple and straightforward, focusing on the reactions of the lieutenant as he deals with the sea man and considers what to do. His understanding comes slowly and even reluctantly until he is forced to face the reality of the situation. He and Pieter both rise to the occasion admirably.

Beginning with the frontspiece, where the sea man arches against the cruel net and throughout the book, Christopher Denise's black-and-white illustrations capture the mood of the narrative. This introspective story will appeal to more thoughtful readers and would also work well for classroom discussion.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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