The seven lyrically written chapters of The Animal Family, told by an omniscient narrator, give a simple yet psychologically complex revision of the old Scottish folktale of the seal-like selkie who is tricked into becoming the wife of a human being. In the original story, the selkie sheds its skin on the shore, revealing its lovely human form to a fisherman. He hides the skin and then takes the woman home and marries her. Long after becoming a devoted wife and mother, she discovers her original seal skin and escapes to the ocean, abandoning both husband and children.
Randall Jarrell’s unnamed, orphaned hunter has built and furnished a one-room log cabin near the ocean, its floor covered with seashells and the skins of seals and deer. His sensitive, artistic nature is shown by the “fireplace of pink and gray and green boulders” brought from the shore and by the animals carved on some of the interior logs and the planks of the chairs.
Despite his comfortable and self-sufficient life, the hunter is troubled by dreams of his dead mother and father and by the lack of anyone to share his life. One night, the voice of a mermaid singing on the beach reminds him of his mother’s singing. Seeing him, the mermaid promptly dives under the water, but each night they draw closer together as he attempts to repeat her songs. Finally, they learn each other’s language.
Becoming quite adept at human speech, the mermaid learns how “new” and “different” the land is from the sea and chooses to live with the...
(The entire section is 634 words.)