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Daughters of the Sea: Hannah

Review

Daughters of the Sea: Hannah

Hannah has lived her entire life in a Boston orphanage. When she is sent West on an orphan train, she sickens with a mysterious ailment. What starts with a rash becomes a full-blown fever. Hannah feels like she is melting away. She sweats rimes of salt, and her body exudes strange, scaly crystals. When she is deemed unfit for work, a Kansas couple takes her out of charity. When it becomes clear they will not be able to cure Hannah’s ailment, she is sent back to Boston and the salt air of the sea.

Back on the Atlantic coast, Hannah’s health swiftly improves. She finds work as a scullery maid to the Hawley family in their grand Boston home. Despite the constant chores lasting from dawn until dusk, and the rigid household structure, Hannah takes pride in her work and wonders if she has finally found a place she can call home.

But Hannah’s peace of mind does not last long. She finds herself mysteriously drawn to the two enormous Japanese vases that accompany the Hawley family wherever they go. She is equally drawn to Stannish Whitman Wheeler, the famous portrait painter who is painting the Hawley daughters. Wheeler’s probing gaze suggests he knows something about Hannah she has yet to guess about herself. His interest in Hannah draws the ire of the eldest Hawley daughter. Lila is determined to put Hannah in her place and wants the painter’s attention for herself.

Hannah is asked to pose for the painting in place of the increasingly difficult Lila. When the Hawleys travel to their summer home in Maine, Hannah discovers she can no longer ignore the pull of the sea or Lila’s increasingly hateful attacks. Torn between the life she knows and the mystery that calls from the ocean’s depths, Hannah is aware that the choices she makes will change her life forever.

Kathryn Lasky is best known for her popular Guardians of Ga’Hoole series along with many historical novels for young people. DAUGHTERS OF THE SEA: HANNAH is the first installment in a new series that blends history with magic. Instead of setting the book in a world of pure fantasy, Lasky writes about magic touching our world in unexpected ways. One of the most vivid aspects of HANNAH is the author’s description of the portrait being painted by Wheeler. She describes it so distinctly --- from the inclusion of the Japanese vases to the colors of the dresses the painter picks for each of the daughters to wear --- that I felt I had seen it before.

The painting is nearly identical to John Singer Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, which is displayed in the Boston Museum of Art between the two Japanese vases it also depicts. In fact, I have seen this painting before, but I had not looked at it clearly or thought to wonder about it until I read Lasky’s book. Lasky even includes an intriguing detail about the vases in the portrait: they travel everywhere with the Hawley family, even making multiple trans-Atlantic voyages. The same is true of their real-world counterparts.

There is one significant difference between Sargent’s and Wheeler’s paintings. In Sargent’s we see four girls, whereas Lasky’s description of Wheeler’s mentions only three. The fourth girl in Sargent’s creation matches Lasky’s description of Hannah; she has red hair and a startling gaze. While the finished painting does not include the fourth figure, Lasky completes the portrait by allowing the red-haired girl to step out of the painting and into her book.

Fiction is often described as allowing readers to escape from this world into another. But the exchange can work the other way as well. A good book can ignite readers’ curiosity about the world in which they live, giving access to ideas and images they will encounter in their daily lives. Written with Lasky’s emphasis on historical research and meticulous attention to detail, DAUGHTERS OF THE SEA: HANNAH blends fantasy and history for an upstairs-downstairs tale of discovering one’s true identity and finally finding a place to call home.

Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood on September 1, 2009

Daughters of the Sea: Hannah
by Kathryn Lasky

  • Publication Date: February 1, 2011
  • Genres: Fantasy
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Scholastic Inc.
  • ISBN-10: 054523803X
  • ISBN-13: 9780545238038