by Robert D. San Souci, illustrated by Brian Pinkney, Simon & Schuster, 1992.
Sukey is a young girl living in a sagging cabin on an island off the coast of South Carolina. Her mother is married to “Mister Jones” but to Sukey he is “Mr. Hard Times”. He forces her to work all day hoeing the garden and doing chores around the house. She escapes one day to sit beside the sea and meets the mermaid Mama Jo, who is lovely; brown-skinned, black-eyed and green-haired. Mama Jo becomes her friend and gives her gold coins every day to give to her parents so she will be able to come and spend the day with her. Sukey’s ma spies on them and tells the step father. They try to capture the mermaid but fail. Sukey runs away and Mama Jo takes her under the sea to live in comfort and beauty. Sukey is happy at first but she misses other human voices and begs to be returned to her home. Mama Jo brings her back reluctantly and sends a bag of gold with her. She tells Sukey that many men are going to court her but she must only marry a man named Dembo.
Sure enough, Sukey is welcomed home by her joyful ma and mean-hearted step-pa. When he sees the bag of gold he decides to steal it. Many men come courting her, but soon enough Dembo shows up and Sukey falls in love with him. Mister Jones kills Dembo and grabs the gold. Sukey runs to the mermaid for help and receives a pearl that brings Dembo back to life. Mister Jones is chased into the sea and swallowed up by a sudden storm. In the closing scene Sukey and Dembo are sitting on the beach together discovering the mermaid’s last gift of gold coins.
This is a satisfying story in the fairy tale tradition, with a poor, overworked girl finding love and happiness at the kind hand of a magical friend. She starts out as the abused child suffering under a step-pa and ends up the joyful wife of a kind, honest man. She is given the choice of life in the magical realm of peace and beauty but follows her heart to return to her own people and endure the suffering of poverty and oppression. These themes of suffering, escape, reunion, struggle, freedom and love fulfillment are classic elements of folklore worldwide. As a child I always loved mermaid stories and I enjoyed this story. I just wish getting married wasn’t the only happy ending. What if Sukey used those gold coins to buy some land and start her own business? Then when Dembo comes along she can marry him if she wants, but she has made her own life. That’s the story I want to read.
This is one of the few mermaid tales with a black mermaid. San Souci has traced a folktale fragment from its roots in Caribeean and West African folklore, building on the story told in South Carolina’s sea islands. Brian Pinkney’s scratchboard and oil pastels are very effective in setting the tone. The way the winds, water and luxurious green hair of the mermaid are rendered shows movement and power. I am happy to be able to share this treasure of a book with the children in my life.
Make sure you visit San Souci's webpage. He has one of those distracting little mouse tails that dance around the screen..... and a lot of other fun stuff!
Here are the awards this book has collected:
1992 Coretta Scott King Honor Book
International Reading Association Teacher's Choice for 1993
Parenting Magazine 1992
"Reading Magic" Award1992
ALA Notable Book for ChildrenSchool Library Journal
"Best Books of 1992
South Carolina Children's Book Award for 1994-95
Shawnee Readers' Award from The Missouri Association of School Librarians for 1995