Between the Lines: The Marsh King's Daughter

Aug 25, 2017

Karen Dionne
Credit Robert Bruce Photography

Too often, we hear the nightmarish stories on the news about young girls who are kidnapped and held in captivity, sometimes for years. Karen Dionne has written the story of one such girl, hidden away in the wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for 14 years, her daughter conceived with her abductor. The Marsh King’s Daughter (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2017) is not Dionne’s first novel but it is the first that she feels has put her firmly onto her path as a writer. The book will be translated into 21 languages.

The setting for Dionne’s story is in deep wilderness, where the abductor, the kidnapped girl, now a woman, and their daughter live. It is told in the voice of the daughter, Helena, who looks back over her childhood in flashbacks as she learns that her father has escaped from prison. Knowing firsthand his keen survival skills, Helena understands that she's the only one with same skills who can capture him. She also knows that he's coming for her.

“The setting is one that I know very well,” Dionne says. “My husband and I in the 1970's bought ten acres west of Macmillan on M-28 in the Upper Peninsula, and we moved there with our infant daughter. She was six weeks old. We lived in a tent, and we built a little cabin out of wood and stone. We carried water from a stream, and we sampled wild foods. We were part of that hippy back-to-the-land movement.”

Credit G.P. Putnam's Sons

Dionne and her husband, now now live in the Detroit area, homesteaded there for only a couple years. But they lived in the U.P. for about 30 years. During that time, Dionne became acquainted with the names of plants and animals, learned to recognize bird calls, and discovered the rhythm of the seasons.

While Dionne says The Marsh King’s Daughter was not directly inspired by any real event, “I’ve always been fascinated by stories of people who overcome a less than perfect childhood and make something out of themselves.”

Dionne did research news stories about girls and women who had given birth while in captivity to get a sense of their experiences. But she chose a different kind of relationship between father and daughter.

“While in the real world, when this happens, the child is like an anchor for the mother, and she’s very close to the child,” she says. “I wrote the opposite. In my story, Helena adores her father and feels a distance from her mother.”

Helena isn't aware of the circumstances of her birth as she grows up, at first. Her life isolated in the wilderness is the only one she knows. Her only view of the outside world is through some old issues of National Geographic and other magazines. Even when she learns that her mother was kidnapped, it doesn’t seem to be so strange to her. How else would her father have found a wife?

Circumstances change, however, as Helena's knowledge of the outer world grows. The story moves through her escape to her adult life, raising her own daughters, and, finally, protecting them from their grandfather. Suspense builds as daughter and father meet again in the deep woods.

Karen Dionne is a co-founder of the online writers’ community Backspace and organizes the Salt Cay Writers Retreat, held every other year on a private island in the Bahamas. She's a member of the International Thriller Writers, where she served on the board of directors as vice-president for technology.

Listen to WMUK's Between the Lines every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., 11:55 a.m., and 4:20 p.m.