Totems on Nantucket

Common Loon or Great Northern Diver

Otto Coontz: The Shapeshifters
First published as Isle of the Shapeshifters
Magnet/Methuen Teens 1988 (1983)

The Great Northern Diver, also known as the Common Loon, has a piercing call rather like a crazed laugh, which has given rise to the saying as crazy as a loon. It’s also a creature of three elements — water, earth and sky — while a distinctive band around its neck gave rise to the Native American legend of the Loon’s Necklace made of shells. The Loon even features on Canda’s dollar coin. All of which helps to explain why this diving bird holds great significance in this fantasy set on Nantucket Island off mainland Massachusetts.

Theda Benedict’s father and stepmother are involved in a popular tv series — he’s the scriptwriter, she the principal star — and they have been invited to Nantucket during June to meet some fans. Theda (‘Theo’ to her friends) has begun her holidays and so is able to travel with them to the island, only to discover that she feels a connection with the place even though she’s never been there before.

The invitation, it turns out, is anything but fortuitous, and is merely a prelude to conflict and disturbances that will affect everyone living on the island. Issues surrounding corporate development, environmental concerns and past injustices build gradually to a climax that almost everyone is unprepared for: for Theo, this appears to be connected with the well in Witch Wood, for everyone else all four elements seem to conspire against them.

Theo is a sensitive twelve-year-old and talented pianist, bullied by her stepmother and troubled by increasingly disturbing dreams. She is also haunted by mocking loon-like laughter and close encounters with unidentifiable entities in the sea and up an alley in Nantucket town. Befriended by Kip Sheridan, a local boy her own age, she learns a bit about the history of the island and its cruel colonial past. She’s given a necklace of shells with strange markings on them by certain islanders showing an intense interest in her, a gift which will give clues to her own genetic heritage.

Meanwhile Kip’s family members are having problems of their own, with a grandmother who appears to have suffered a severe stroke and a father who is having difficulties persuading the powers-that-be that a series of minor quakes may be the prelude to something more catastrophic.

This teen fantasy by Otto Coontz is crammed full of suspense and mystery, though the title has already given some indication of what we might expect. In some ways there is an overload of detail, almost as if the author was setting up conditions for a sequel, and the wrapping up of the denouement I found a bit perfunctory.

As always, however, the mature reader has to ask whether it works for the target audience — even though a well written novel should appeal across generations — and I think it largely does. Theo is a heroic but human figure, and Kip a sympathetic foil; the adults are pretty believable except for the shapeshifters themselves who, while I understood their motivation, seemed mostly ciphers.

Coontz gets across environmental and cultural issues without overt preaching, and the geological and Native American mythological elements, though largely invented, feel authentic enough within the context of the story. The edition I read has a fine cover illustration by Sarah Govia showing the key elements of the novel: Theo, her necklace of shells and incised symbols, a couple of totem animals and the foggy nature of the low profiled island. The novel brings out the significance of all these elements as the action leads us up to the thrilling climax at the summer solstice.

1950s stamp design by Laurence Hyde, Montreal. Credit: http://postalhistorycorner.blogspot.com/

It’s interesting to compare and contrast this with Joan Aiken’s Night Birds on Nantucket (1966). Both novels are largely set on the island and feature a proactive pre-teen female protagonist opposed by a strong female antagonist; both tales occur during the summer months when mists are common; both have environmental concerns at their core (either despoliation of the land or commercial whaling); and many of Nantucket’s principal landmarks, including the town and Saul’s Hills, feature in both books. On the other hand The Shapeshifters is more obviously fantasy while the Dido Twite adventure is alternate history; Coontz’s story is contemporary with the early 1980s while Aiken’s novel is set in the 1830s; and Coontz’s story concerns colonial oppression while Night Birds on Nantucket focuses on imaginary political conspiracies and steampunk engineering. But as companion pieces I think they sit well together.

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12 thoughts on “Totems on Nantucket

  1. Oh my gosh, I have this book! I’ve probably read it six or seven times. My copy is quite old now, with the original title, and I’ve had it forever.

    Nantucket seems to strike a chord with a lot of writers. At least, there are a lot of books set there.

    1. I don’t know any other Nantucket-based novel, unfortunately, though I wonder if Alice Island in The Storied Life of A J Fikry is based on Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket.

  2. I always assumed “Crazed as a loon” was to do with folks who howled at the moon (lune / luney) and there’s also that saying “Bald as a coot” but that is more obvious… Thanks for sharing ❤

    1. Yes, as far as I can see the loon/lunatic connection is only as a homophone, and therefore a coincidence, the call of the bird being likened to mad laughter.

      But I don’t know the etymology of ‘loon’ and so there may ultimately be a lunar link: I’ll have to look it out!

      Anyway, hope you enjoyed this. 😊

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