"Shark Girls" by Jamiee Wriston Colbert


People don’t know too much about sharks; we’re probably too frightened to do thorough research.  Not all members of the species are dangerous and — as is often the case — humans put sharks in greater peril than vice-versa.  A recent report on the CBS News program “Sixty Minutes” even told of a “sharkman” in South Africa who plunges in to seek out “playful” great white sharks, which he observes are intelligent, curious and not necessarly hungry for human blood.  But if we don’t understand too much about sharks themselves we do keep fastidious records of encounters with sharks.  In the Pacific waters around Hawai’i there have been 114 unprovoked shark attacks in the past 127 years, eleven of them fatal.  But sharks are still scary and turn up in the folklore and the psychology of humans who live near shark-infested waters.

The new novel “Shark Girls” was inspired by an actual event, the 1958 death of a 15-year old boy off Lanikai Beach on the island of O’ahu.  Divers could not rescue him. He quickly became part of the shark mythology and especially fascinated one local girl named Jaimee, who would later write, “This I remember: the fear, what was unseen, violent and predatory, our every nightmare lurking in our ocean waters, and how, we were assured, these brave men (for of course they were men in those days) would save us.”  Sections of the novel are introduced by a quote from folklorist Martha Beckwith’s authoritative “Hawaiian Mythology”.

Hawai’i native Jaimee Wriston Colbert is today a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Binghamton University and an award-winning novelist.  Her previous work includes “Dream Lives of Butterflies”, winner of the gold medal in the 2008 Independent Publishers Awards, and “Climbing the God Tree”, which won the Willa Cather Fiction Prize.  “Shark Girls” is a finalist for this year’s Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Award and nominee as a Notable Book of 2010 by the American Library Association.

In “Shark Girls”, pretty Wilhelmina “Willa” Beever, age 8, has lost a leg in a shark attack and though she survived she descended into silence till she was eighteen years old.  Her experience is paralleled by that of Gracie McKneely, who as a baby had the right side of her face burned away when her father (a professor at a university that clearly resembles Binghamton) accidentally dropped her onto a flaming barbeque grill.  Thus mutilated, both women grow to adulthood incomplete in both body and soul.  Willa the “shark girl” develops a reputation as a faith healer while Gracie seeks a stabilizing relationship while trying to keep her face half hidden.  Their wanderings bring them to the State of Maine (where Jaimee once lived) and the same bizarre boarding house occupied by “a line of muscle-tongued women.”  The story is told through Willa’s sister Susan Katherine “Scat” Beever, whose dismay at Willa’s injury helped drive her to alcoholism and debauchery but who has developed a reputable career as a disaster photographer.

What was life like after a shark dined on your sister’s leg?  What’s it like having a miracle in the family?  Years later, those are the kids of questions you get from the tabloids, Star, Sun, Globe, National Enquirer, news shows inviting you to come on so they can get from you the human angle.  Springer’s people call to see if maybe there hadn’t been some sort of fight involved, blame laid like hands upon a shoulder, fat fist broad-siding that guilty grin?  So people can stare at you and be grateful you are you and not them.  Talk of a reality show, Sharks in Paradise — How we choose to become survivors of our own catastrophic lives.
— from “Shark Girls”

Jaimee Wriston Colbert joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to speak about “Shark Girls” and the quest for normal lives.

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