Author’s Inspiration ~ Milana Marsenich
The Swan Keeper
The Swan Keeper is an historical, coming of age novel set in Northwest Montana’s Mission Valley in the late 1920’s. Lillian Connelly loves trumpeter swans. Dean Drake is killing them and leaving their carcasses for the wolves and coyotes to ravage. On her eleventh birthday, a family outing turns tragic when Lilly sees Dean Drake kill, not only the swans, but also her father. With tremendous courage Lilly vows to bring Dean Drake to justice.
The main inspiration for Lilly comes from the work I’ve done over the years with children and teens. As a mental health therapist at a day treatment hospital I’ve watched these young boys and girls struggle with the difficult, and often tragic, events of their lives. I’ve witnessed their courage, resilience, persistence, rebellion, and love as they’ve recovered from those traumas. I wanted Lilly to portray this hope as she tries to make sense of a senseless tragedy. Lilly knows who killed her father and yet no one will believe her. Trauma is magnified when the event is dismissed or minimized. Lilly’s imagination kicks in to befriend and protect her, to encourage her to trust herself—not an easy thing to do when everyone tells her that she is lying.
In my work I’ve also encountered the calculated cruelty of sociopaths, those people that, for whatever reason, do not have a conscience. These people are often deceptively charming. But not in all places. When a person is charming and sweet to one person in a family, but targets another, it can make the targeted person feel pretty crazy. Dean Drake came right out of my experiences with sociopaths. I don’t wish the experience on anyone. But once you’ve met one and understand what you are dealing with, future sociopaths are easier to see. Until then life with one can be, at best, confusing, and, at worst, dangerous. In Lilly’s case, Dean Drake is dangerous.
For comfort and clues Lilly returns, again and again, to the Cattail Marsh to see the trumpeter swans. This element of The Swan Keeper was inspired by my volunteer work at the Montana Waterfowl Foundation. Trumpeter swans are amazing, magical birds that turn violent when their young are threatened. Walk too close to their nests and they will charge hissing. Other times they float peacefully on the water. I heard it said somewhere that the swan represents the soul: kind, loving, fierce. I’ve come to believe that suffering, painful as it is, strengthens a person’s character and opens the soul to love and beauty.
In my work at the Montana Waterfowl Foundation I was lucky enough to hold a trumpeter swan on my lap while he was being banded. The swan went completely still, as quiet and winter. Holding that swan, I felt wrong, out of place, blessed. Later that same day we went to the Ninepipe Reservoir and released ten captive-raised trumpeter swans to the wild. It was an amazing feeling to see them go. The images of the trumpeter swans on the water and in the sky that day stayed with me until they became the images of The Swan Keeper.
East of the reservoir the steep, craggy peaks of the Mission Mountains loom. This is wild country. Grizzly bears, wolves, coyote, and mountain lions all claim that wilderness as home. From the top of the passes or the peaks, the valley stretches west forever. The Swan Mountains stretch east. Small lakes are everywhere. I’ve spent many hours hiking in those mountains. The peace I’ve felt in this beautiful country made me want to take Lilly up the trails and over the passes. I wanted her to be strong, to love nature, to find refuge in the wildflowers, among the boulders, and in the trees. In my novel, The Swan Keeper, this wild beauty, the swan’s magic, and Lilly’s innocence are all pitted against Dean Drake’s violence and cruelty, the age old “good vs. evil”. Like many of the children and teens I’ve known, Lilly’s good heart and great courage strengthen her resolve to overcome unspeakable odds. Her strength, compassion, and strong sense of justice were inspired by the Mission Mountains, the trumpeter swans, and the courage of dozens of Montana boys and girls.
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Milana Marsenich lives in Northwest Montana near Flathead Lake at the base of the beautiful Mission Mountains. She enjoys quick access to the mountains and has spent many hours hiking the wilderness trails with friends and dogs. For the past 20 years she has worked as a mental health therapist in a variety of settings. As a natural listener and a therapist, she has witnessed amazing generosity and courage in others. She first witnessed this in her hometown of Butte, Montana, a mining town with a rich history and the setting for Copper Sky, her first novel. She has an M.Ed. in Mental Health Counseling from Montana State University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana. She has previously published in Montana Quarterly, Big Sky Journal, The Polishing Stone, The Moronic Ox, BookGlow, and Feminist Studies. She has a short story included in The Montana Quarterly book: Montana, Warts and All. She has two published novels, Copper Sky and The Swan Keeper.