In her latest original graphic novel, The Girl from the Sea, Molly Knox Ostertag takes a break from the world of her three previous graphic novels (The Witch Boy, The Hidden Witch and The Midwinter Witch) to introduce us to new characters in a different setting. Like Ostertag’s previous work, The Girl from the Sea is about characters who are worried that they don’t fit in, yearning for a place or time in which they can just be fully themselves without judgement, and about what happens when their secrets spill out into the open.
Fifteen-year-old Morgan cannot wait to leave the island where she lives. She compartmentalizes her life, keeping her divorced, trying-too-hard mother and her angry/sullen/exasperating younger brother separate from her peer group at school, and keeping them all in the dark about her romantic interest in other girls. When a mysterious girl named Keltie literally swims into her life (and saves it), the walls between those compartments threaten to break down and Morgan isn’t sure she can handle whatever will come next. Will her mother still love her? Will her friends still like her? Will this give her brother yet another reason to be mean to her? The questions threaten to overwhelm her even before she finds out that Keltie has secrets of her own—the least of which is that she’s a supernatural creature called a Selkie.
Coming out is, and always should be, a personal choice. No one gets to tell you when the right moment is, no one gets to do it for you. It’s heartening to see queer youth coming out at ages that couldn’t be imagined twenty years ago—but even when it would be safe to come out, it still isn’t necessarily easy. Morgan has a loving mother and brother and a group of friends who seem genuinely supportive of each other. Yet she still doesn’t feel safe telling any of them her deepest secret and it seems like the only way she can truly be herself is to move away from all of them and start over. This is the sad truth for so many LGBTQ+ kids, especially in small towns like those on the island Morgan lives on: lack of clear queer representation and role models can make even the safest spaces feel dangerous. Ostertag captures Morgan’s fears, dreams, and frustrations beautifully via dialogue, narration, and body language.
It’s a heavy secret to keep. But even secrets kept with the best of intentions can harm the relationships we most value. Not coming out pulls Morgan away from her family and friends, and adding a secret possible girlfriend into the mix (especially one who doesn’t understand human social interactions) only increases that distance as it takes Morgan’s secret from purely internal emotion to something that needs to be externally dealt with (the possibility of getting caught holding hands or kissing). Eventually something must give, and Ostertag spools out those outing/coming out scenes truthfully and naturally.
Morgan’s secret is not the only one at play. Equally central to the story is Keltie’s overlapping secrets: that she’s a Selkie and that she has come on land not just to romance Morgan but also to do whatever it takes to protect her seal family’s rookery from being devastated by a new yacht scheduled to give island tours. Morgan knows Keltie is a Selkie almost from the start, although she doesn’t necessarily believe it at first. But the other secret threatens to end their nascent relationship, as Morgan rightfully wonders if Keltie actually likes her at all or is just using her to get to the people who own the yacht (the parents of Morgan’s friend, Serena). This only exacerbates Morgan’s existing trust issues, which stem from her parents’ divorce. The divorce itself is no secret, but it’s implied in several scenes that the reasons for the divorce are not something Morgan’s parents have ever discussed with their children. The impact of those perhaps unintentionally kept secrets account for Morgan’s fear of opening up to her loved ones as much as they account for her brother Aidan’s angry acting out and need for attention. Morgan must have a heart-to-heart with her mom about the divorce.
That conversation also touches on each character’s hopes and dreams. Mom just wants her kids to be happy and healthy, and recognizes that she hasn’t been as open about the divorce as she should have been. Morgan finally verbalizes to her mother what she’s been planning: her dream of leaving the island to live someplace where she doesn’t have to worry about disappointing anyone by being herself. It’s a wonderfully crafted scene of two people acknowledging that their secrets (or sins of omission in Mom’s case) have hurt the ones they love most—one of a series of emotional climaxes that fill the second half of the book. Morgan also admits she’s been trying to compartmentalize her life to keep control of it, to which her mother responds, “Sometimes you have to let your life get messy. That’s how you get to the good parts.” When Morgan finally lets those walls down and lets the sections of her life she’s been keeping separate intermingle, things do get messy: coming out to her friends involves bringing Keltie to Serena’s sixteenth birthday party on the very yacht Keltie wants to stop.
Serena doesn’t seem to be keeping any secrets of her own, but she is affected by everyone else’s. Ostertag does a fantastic job of showing us how close Morgan’s friend group is at the start of the book, via a series of group chat messages, and how Morgan’s increasing distance changes that dynamic and starts to harm those relationships. Serena, the rich girl who seems to have a perfect life, thinks Morgan’s distance is her fault and tries to figure out what she did to drive her friend away. She’s a nice counterpoint to both Morgan and Keltie: the girl whose only secret is that she’s not as happy as everyone outside of her friend group thinks she is. Serena’s parents are still married but they’re not engaged in her life the way Morgan’s mom is in hers, nor are they as non-existent as Keltie’s family. (If there’s one thing I wish Ostertag had included in the story, it’s more of Keltie’s life. The seals seem to be her only family and there’s a strong implication that the island only has one Selkie at a time—which begs the question of who and where Keltie’s biological parents are.) Serena’s parents seem interested only in using their daughter as a marketing tool for their yacht tours and don’t pay attention to what their daughter really wants or needs.
The mess caused by bringing Keltie and Serena together is eventually resolved in an action-packed scene that recalls the opening of the book and leads to an ending that is happy but also a touch bittersweet. Morgan, Keltie, and Serena all get the chance to be their true selves, although what that means is different for each of them. If this is a “done in one” story it ends on a hopeful note for all the main characters and has a satisfying conclusion. But part of me hopes we’ll get to see more of these characters and learn more about the history of Selkies on the island.