Folklore is one of those primal, all-transcending human experiences. All cultures and tribes have their own legends, stories, and tales of that which goes beyond human understanding, the unusual, bizarre, surreal, and fantastical. These legends often carry with them true weight and resonance, the stories themselves may seem silly, but behind them are powerful ideas that can tell us a lot about a culture.
Mark Siegel’s Sailor Twain is simultaneously a book of folklore and an examination of folklore. The titular Sailor Twain, captain of a riverboat on the Hutson, tells the story and his own quest of examining folklore to understand his relationship with a mermaid. Running parallel to this story is the story of the boat’s owner: Lafayette, recently obtaining the boat after his brother, the previous owner, mysteriously drowns. Lafayette is on a far less intellectual mission, seeking to woo as many women at once as he possibly can.
What quickly becomes apparent about the story of Sailor Twain is how it uses the mythology of mermaids in order to explore concepts of love, desire, and sexuality. At first glance, it forces Sailor Twain to recon with these ideas as his marriage with his wife Pearl is rather placid. Not only is he often away, but she’s also an invalid.
Through this context, the mermaid is a representation of all the passion and desire Sailor Twain desires from his wife but cannot have because of both the distance from her and also because she is an invalid. In this way, mermaids are examined as a sort of fantasy of sailors in order to attempt satiate the desires they cannot completely fulfil at sea.
However, the mermaid is not simply an idea in the book but a flesh and blood character with her own motives. She drives men with a supernatural lust and there’s something perilous about her effect on men. This runs in parallel with Lafayette’s own quest for as many romances as possible, love and lust run rampant to the point that he is almost destroying himself for a desire he cannot sate. While this folklore flames a passion of love and sex, it also shows how those flames can consume ones being.
Within the narrative of the story, Sailor Twain seeks to understand the mermaid by pursuing the works of a mysterious author known as C.G. Beaverton. Beaverton’s latest book is the most popular work of fiction, speaking to the impact of folklore. Sailor Twain understands that there is something to be contemplated in folklore. They are not simply stories, but something that can guide and inform one’s life.
And while Siegel’s writing weaves a rich spell with the fascinating look at folklore, his art also contributes a lot to the tone. The charcoal drawings fit perfectly into the setting of an industry-fueled city, a delightful choice given the riverboat setting. Many of Siegel’s images ooze with atmosphere, there’s an entire sense of haziness, an almost dreamlike quality that floats across every page.
If his artstyle has a weakness, it’s that Siegel’s detail isn’t always spot on. His drawings of faces, in particular, often shift in awkward ways and the titular character feels like he has the least visual definition of all the characters. At times, it’s so bad that only the characters referencing him as Twain make the reader aware that is whom they are viewing.
Even with that qualm, Sailor Twain is a gripping, memorable read. It’s strange that a book about folklore and love is written with such a fresh take, avoiding most of the clichés and tropes of the genre. The book develops more like a mystery story, unfolding and discovering the richness of folklore while celebrating in the same movement.