Haunted Waters, by Mary Pope Osborne

So there I was browsing in my local used book store with about forty dollars of trade-in credit to spend, and I saw on the shelf a signed first edition copy of Haunted Waters, by Mary Pope Osborne (Candlewick, 1994, YA, 153 pages), a retelling of the story of Undine. My eyes lit up, and I pounced on it....because I WAS CONFUSED. I though this was a rare book by Elizabeth Marie Pope (author of The Perilous Gard), and I was ever so so happy...

Still not knowing what I had done, I began reading. Right at the beginning, in a short prologue, we are told that the sea king has delivered his niece to a human family, to liven up the merfolk gene pool. So when a medieval knight, lost in a demonic wood, meets an improbable fisherfolk family--kind old man, insane old woman, and beautiful but mysterious girl who swims really well--we can guess who this girl is! Especially since her name is Undine.

A storm of supernatural strength kicks up, forcing the knight to stay with the fisher family. For no good reason (other than animal attraction) he falls for Undine (since she is virtually monosyllabic it can't be for her wits, although in fairness, since she's apparently never seen another person in her whole life (evil demonic spirits don't count) she hasn't had much chance to develop that part of her personality). The Undine falls for him too (for even less clear a reason--she was getting tired of swimming all day, I guess, and having demonic spirits looking through the windows), and a handy priest washes ashore who marries them.

The knight, however, hasn't thought things through all that well viz the demons that lurk around the girl and her general mysteriousness, and she hasn't thought things out either (although how would she know that not everyone likes swimming as much as she does? But still I would have liked her to be a tad more aggressive in trying to find out answers, instead of being all mysterious and inarticulate) and things don't go well.

And as I read all this, I kept waiting for the fine writing of Elizabeth Marie Pope--for the characters to leap of the page and become people I cared about, and it didn't come. Instead I got what felt like overly careful writing, and overly conscious story-telling, all from the point of view of Lord Huldbrand, who never became a particularly sympathetic character. Here's a random example of the prose style:

"Lonely music wafted from a shepherd's flute. I looked back at Undine. She clutched her shawl and stared at the barley field. Did the rippling silver-gold grain remind her of her ocean waves? Was she yearning for the sound of the fisherman's pipe? For a terrible moment, I regretted having stolen her from her old life.

Then the fisherman's words came back to me. He had begged me to take Undine far away from the inhuman force haunting their shore. Revived by the memory of his charge, I began leading my horse through the swelling fields." (page 56)

In a nutshell, it's a doomed relationship: Huldbrand needs to talk to Undine more than he does; she needs to try to answer him.

In a second nutshell, it's all very medieval fantasy Gothic, but without enough emotional heft behind the gothic-ness to make it work for me.

In a third nutshell, I wish it had been an Elizabeth Marie Pope book instead.

But yet I was interested enough to want to see how the story played out, and I read the book in a single sitting (it's short). So if you have patience with narration that is unrelentingly Narrated, and if you like retellings, especially those with Dark Mysteries at their core (which unfortunately aren't mysteries to any reader who's read the prologue), you may well enjoy this one more than I did.

For anyone put off by the cover, on which Undine looks like she's having a shower, Candlewick released a new edition in 1996, with a different, and much more beautiful cover, that looks like the sort of handsome book that one might like just for the handsomeness of it...

The paperback cover, however, goes off in a different direction entirely--not one I particularly care for.


  1. If this is the same Mary Pope Osborne that wrote the Magic Treehouse books, then she was one of my absolute favorite authors as a kid--but I've never really been tempted to look back, for the reasons you covered here. I had no idea she'd written this one, though. I probably would have devoured it when I was seven or eight.

    1. It is the same! But this one is perhaps to focused on luv and a tortured relationship to give to your eight year old self...

  2. Oh. Now you have me looking to see if Elizabeth Marie Pope write anything else. I can't think why I've never done so before. It's usually the first thing I check on liking a book. Hmm.. Something called The Sherwood Ring Must hunt down!

    1. Oh yes, the Sherwood Ring is very good too! I put off reading it, because it's set in New York (present day and 18th century), and I wanted more Elizabethan England, but when I got over that, I enjoyed it lots.


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