“Know your own self and do what you know you must do, and stop no one from doing what they must do, understand?”

Over time I’ve gotten a feel for GU books – even when the description doesn’t seem quite spot-on, I know when to give it a chance. And I’m so glad I did with this one! Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea didn’t appear to have an adversary at first, which is a crucial element of the GU archetype, but in fact it was just a slow reveal. But even if it hadn’t ended up qualifying, I would have been happy I picked it up, because this book cut deep. Like many such stories, it is set in our world but with an overlay of magical elements – but this is the real world, gritty and painful, and even the magical parts are harsh.

Sophie, 13, lives in Chelsea, a poor and dirty city on the outskirts of Boston. Her father is gone and her mother is overworked and distant. With nothing better to do, she starts playing “the passing out game” with her best friend, taking turns forcing themselves into unconsciousness. But far from merely a quick thrill, Sophie’s game seems to awaken something in her, and starts producing visions of a mermaid (the dark, folklore kind, not the Disney kind) living in the creek. Then she begins noticing that she can go into other people’s minds and hearts, feeling what they feel (which, given the despair hanging over everyone there, is not much fun). As it turns out, Sophie is the fulfillment of a legend that has permeated the Polish immigrant families of Chelsea for decades – that a girl would come to save them all, a girl who could take away the pollution of their city and their hearts, and she would be recognized by her ability to eat vast quantities of salt. There is nothing Sophie loves more than salt.

Sophie accumulates a few companions who know what’s going on, including a flock of pigeons that she can talk to. She is guided by a wise old woman. She begins to learn of her gift. But at the same time, she must evade the adversary, who it turns out has been in her life all along (I won’t put a spoiler here). This adversary has hurt Sophie’s family, stolen something close to her, and still tries to sway Sophie to their side. But Sophie turns away and decides to pursue her destiny by following the mermaid back to the old country, where she can learn to harness her power.

Although there is no final confrontation (since the story continues in a planned trilogy), this is still a solid GU plot. I love the inclusion of Polish mythology – the Poludnitsa, Rusalka, etc. And I appreciate the setting, too, showing that magic is not always pretty, and that it can be found everywhere, even in the most unpleasant places.