A mermaid walks out of the sea to live with a man she’s fallen in love with. Years later, the sea takes him away from her. That’s the beginning of the story in Christina Henry’s newest fairy tale for young adults and grownups, The Mermaid. Living in a small seafaring Maine town, most of her neighbors are respectful of Amelia’s – the name her husband gave her – privacy, but rumors have a way of spreading; this time, they spread all the way to New York, and to the ears of none other than The Greatest Showman himself, P.T. Barnum. Barnum dispatches his partner, Levi Lyman, to Maine to talk to the “mermaid” and convince her to become one of Barnum’s spectacles. Amelia, a strong, smart woman in a time when women have no voice, no property, and no agency of their own, she decides – after sending Lyman on his way – to make her way to New York and negotiate with Barnum. She wants to travel the world, and she agrees to work with Barnum on her own terms for six months, in order to be able to finance it. The partnership between the two headstrong characters is tenuous, and Lyman finds himself falling in love with Amelia. The Mermaid is amazing storytelling that has a distinctly feminist voice.
The Mermaid gives us a Barnum that isn’t quite so friendly and fun as Hugh Jackman’s portrayal in The Greatest Showman; this Barnum is concerned with money, who’s paying it out, and how much of it he can make off the back of his “spectacles”. He’s recovering from the backlash of one of his exhibits gone wrong, and trying to recover his reputation; he’s known as a liar and a “humbug” (not exactly untrue); he treats his wife and daughters shabbily, and cares little for anyone outside of himself. That’s enough about him.
Amelia is the star of this story. She’s a real mermaid who touches the lives of those who lay eyes on her. Charity, Barnum’s put-upon wife, resists believing in her at first, but later comes to treasure her friendship with Amelia, finding her own voice to stand up against her bulldozing husband. Caroline, Barnum’s young daughter, is enchanted with the idea of knowing a mermaid, and discovers her own young voice thanks to Amelia. Levi Lyman finds his scruples and love in her stormy eyes. Amelia refuses to be taken advantage of, and demands to be heard. She empowers those around her. She reminds Barnum that at any moment, she can walk away from him and he’ll never find her: she’s a mermaid, for crying out loud, and the Earth is 75% water; good luck finding her. We don’t learn about her family or her people; she is the focus of the novel and the narrative. She stands alone. An adult novel, this can easily cross over into YA/Teen for fantasy readers. There are discussion questions available at the end of the book.
Want more circus and sideshow books? Booktalk and display with Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants and H.P. Wood’s Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet. Want more of Christina Henry’s fairy tales? Check out her website and learn about her other books.
Water for Elephants
Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet