In his blurb for Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, Daniel Handler says it has “the grit and the wit and the girls in trouble loving each other fierce and true” of Michelle Tea’s work in general (which totally makes me want to read more by Michelle Tea) and also “all the juice of a terrific fantasy novel, with the magic and the creatures and the otherworldly sense of something lurking underneath each artifact of our ordinary lives,” and yeah, I think that’s a good description, and captures a lot of why I liked this book so much.

Mermaid in Chelsea Creek is set in Chelsea, Massachusetts, which is described in the first sentence as “a city where people landed” (7). It’s a city of immigrants, all of whom bring their own cultures and traditions—and also, their own magic, though it’s maybe hard to pass that magic and those traditions on to children and grandchildren who grow up American. Sophie Swankowski, who’s thirteen and being raised by a single mom, is the granddaughter of Polish immigrants, though at the start of the story she’s not particularly connected to that heritage: she basically sees her Polish grandmother only on holidays, and her overworked mom is more likely to suggest cereal or pizza for dinner than to cook anything. In addition to magic, we learn, the people who land in Chelsea bring stories with them:

And the stories brought from the many places were all different, but then, they were all the same. And the oldest story, the silliest and most dangerous story, the saddest and most hopeful story, was the story of the girl who would bring the magic, the girl who would come to save them all. (9)

Plants

OK, so I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that it becomes clear pretty early that this is going to be a Chosen One story—and, surprise, Sophie is the Chosen One. But she doesn’t know that to start: she just knows her life in Chelsea, this city that Tea describes like this:

brick and cement, the telephone poles and electrical wires, the roaring buses and the graffitied everything, busted playgrounds, a city with so much wear and tear on it, so many people with so little money coming to it for so long, the threadbare buildings and dollar stores, the railroad tracks where men slept in the tall grass, the sub shops and pizza places and the corner stores selling scratchers and cigarettes, the corner bars with no windows and men inside heaped and immobile as the cracked stools they sat upon. (9)

This being a Chosen One story, it’s a lot about Sophie learning about her history/destiny/magic, though meanwhile it’s also about her dealing with being grounded on summer vacation, and tensions with her best/only friend, and her growing awareness of herself as her own person, and I thought the combination of it all worked really well. The scenes where Sophie learns about/explores her magic are great, and I also love the magic itself, how much it’s about feelings and intuition and, crucially/centrally, empathy: Sophie can read people’s hearts and feel what they’re feeling.

I loved so many things about this book, from the grumpy/hilarious/bedraggled mermaid of the title to the way that Sophie comes to see pigeons as something other than “rats with wings” to Jason Polan’s pleasing illustrations (see above). Minor quibbles: I might have liked this more if it were a standalone book rather than the first of a trilogy, and oh man, so many typos/this book really needed a better proofread. But everything else was delightful enough for me to overlook those things. I took this book with me on the 4th of July, when I went to Queens three hours before the Macy’s fireworks so I could get a decent spot in one of the parks by the water with a good view, and it was pretty perfect to be reading this in the midst of the crowd and the heat: it was engrossing enough to get lost in, even in the middle of a whole lot of potential annoyances/distractions.

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