Fresh off a disastrous seventh grade at school, 13-year-old Charlotte Hale is sent to stay with her grandparents for the summer in Rocky Harbor, an idyllic seaside town located on Cape Ann. Dispatched by her deadbeat father, Charlotte boards a bus in the worn-out factory town where she lives and, during her journey east, comes to meet Mrs. Bouchard, an old woman with a fantastical story to tell.
Mrs. Bouchard reveals to Charlotte the tale of the Gertrude Chance, which, according to local lore, got caught in a storm and disappeared off the coast of Rocky Harbor hundreds of years ago while carrying the stolen treasures of Oceanus, the god of the sea. Amid the chaos of the storm, the story goes, a young seaman was able to rescue a tiny blue bottle from the hold, slip it into his pocket and dive into the ocean.
This bottle, it was said, held within it all the power of the seas and was at the center of a feud between Oceanus and his brother, Mortimer, who wanted the bottle — and its powers — all to himself.
So begins the unfurling of “The Blue Bottle,” a beautifully descriptive novel for middle-graders by local author Emilie-Noelle Provost, whose name should be very familiar to readers of mvm as the magazine’s travel and culture editor.
“The Blue Bottle” is Provost’s first novel, and preteen bibliophiles will be drawn into the story by themes often recognizable by readers of that age: familial discontent, self-discovery, a budding friendship on the cusp of romance, and the feeling of not quite knowing where you belong.
When Charlotte finds herself in the middle of Mrs. Bouchard’s fiction-turned-reality, comparisons to typical middle grade novels cease. Enter sassy mermaids, slimy sea creatures that walk on land, and devious ocean gods in disguises — all of which Charlotte and new pal Ezra encounter while unraveling Rocky Harbor’s past and attempting to save its future, efforts that hinge on finding the bottle hidden by the young seaman long ago.
Part adventure, part mystery, “The Blue Bottle” shows Provost’s ability to craft unique, compelling stories. Consider this description of one of the sea creatures sent to hunt Charlotte: “Its eyes, like smooth discs, were the foul yellow hue of rotten cheese.”
Or this passage, describing Charlotte’s encounter with the mermaid Eucla:
“Suddenly, the mermaid shot one of her slender arms down into the water and pulled out a fat, green crab, its legs wriggling. Grasping it by the back of its shell, she took a bite out of its thorax and chewed it into a pulp, shell and all. A thick liquid, like brown cottage cheese, dripped down her arm and from the corners of her mouth.”
Readers familiar with Cape Ann — anyone who loves the sea, for that matter — will appreciate the visuals of Rocky Harbor that the author conjures with her words.
Provost makes the fantastic seem believable (a condemned sea god posing as an antiques dealer) and creates realistic dialogue. I especially enjoy Grandpa Hale’s grandpa-type vernacular, including the use of the word “barfly.”
My only bone of contention with “The Blue Bottle” is that the story feels a little rushed at times and leaves the reader yearning for more information.
“The Blue Bottle” is sure to be unlike anything lovers of middle-school fiction have read before. This tale deserves a read, down to the very last reflection of light off the sea, where our heroine rides into the sunset on a school bus.
I can’t wait to see what Provost comes up with next.