Watermusic, by Sarah Sargent (1986, back when a book could have as few as 120 pages), is the second book I finished for today's middle grade readathon. It came home with me from the library discards I was sorting for the booksale. It is the sort of book that just goes to show that the 1980s were a strange time and it is not my fault I turned out the way I did. I am breaking my thoughts on this book into very short paragraphs for clarity's sake.
Our heroine, Laura, is a a mopey/day dreamy 13 year old flute player with no close friends and a neurotic/sensitively perceptive sense that there is more to life than meets the eye.
Laura's mother has a job, but keeps her house spotless. She is proud of her synthetic wall to wall carpet, her distressed coffee table that came with scratches already in place. She is quick to wield the "Gleam and Go" and the bug spray at the first sign of trouble (Hint: Laura's mother is a metaphor for "modern humanity distanced from nature).
The batty anthropologist who doesn't keep the shrubs outside her Victorian house pruned hires Laura to help unpack ethnographic collections from the mountains of Peru. She choose Laura because of Laura's sensitivity; she herself is all about sensitivity to higher thought etc.
Except that she is NOT SENSITIVE to the fact that people living in the mountains of Peru might want to keep their ancestral sacred artifacts. Good anthropologists don't excavate their own tunnels into secret shrines to steal people's sacred giant bats that are sleeping in suspended animation and that are really seraphs (beings of pure thought, who fly singing purely through the sky when not in suspended animation in caves, or being stolen by anthropologists). Wanting to take the bat/seraph home to the US and have fun with pure thought does not, strangely, seem to me like a good enough reason to dig tunnels and pillage sacred places.
But Laura doesn't grasp this, and plays along (literally, on the sacred flute also pinched from the bat/seraph cave), and the bat/seraph wakes up, and it and the anthropologist go off to the realm of pure thought or something which involves flying together over the Andes.
Leaving Laura to deal with the Antithesis of Pure Thought--the swamp thing/monster that the flute music has summoned up out of the drain!!!!!
Happily it turns out the swamp thing is actually the Mermaid of Fecundity and Love and giving it fruit and a knife sends it home again.
There is more to the book, but not much more (an Indian doctor, for instance, gets to add a touch of Eastern Wisdom).
In case you ever want to write a high school essay on this book, I will help: Laura's mother and the anthropologist are both, in different ways, making bad choices by distancing themselves from the world of insects and over-ripe cantaloupe (which is what the swamp mermaid smells like). One can assume that the writer thinks the eighties are/were bad and we are/were killing too many insects with our household toxins, but also thinks that pure thought, devoid of emotion, is bad and we must embrace as well the Mermaid of Fecundity or something. Which I agree with, but gee, this is a weird book.
I turn now to see what reviews in the 1980s though of it:
Publisher's weekly: "a strange but gentle metaphysical story of a young girl's discovery of the different planes of human existence.....Deep and haunting, this story can be enjoyed both for its fine fantasy and its delicate symbolism."
If that review thinks the symbolism is delicate, I shudder to think what overt would look like.
School Library Journal: "As one of the characters comments, "This has to be one of the most amazing things I've ever heard of." Sargent's slender novel almost defies description, but it is so beautifully written that it's worth making a little extra effort to suspend disbelief....Watermusic is recommended for private enjoyment and reading aloud with thoughtful young teens."
I do not think I would want to try reading it aloud to even the most thoughtful of teens today. I think you would loose them at giant bat/seraph.
Note on cover: I showed it to my 13 year old son, and asked if he could imagine the girl showing up at his school. I got a loud No in response.....but the hairstyle sure is accurate. I have the pictures to prove it. Sigh.