Those who grew up in communities that rely on the ocean for its bounty know the water’s rhythms. The tide table is only a fraction of the story; the changing seasons bring the fish runs, the days of boom or bust for those who fish or those who process, migrating sea mammals, storm fronts, and doldrum days. In Crissy Van Meter’s novel “Creatures,” Evangeline comes of age as the child of an absent mother and a benignly neglectful father. Her father supplements his seasonal income with a strain of marijuana called “Winter Wonderland” that he sells to islanders and visitors seeking its unique high.

The fictional Winter Island is among the California Channel Islands, home to a collection of residents and the itinerant visitors who flock to the island to observe its wildlife or partake in the drug Evangeline’s father sells.

The novel opens with the presence of a dead whale that is trapped in the cove. Its miasma overlays the island, and the smell threatens to spoil Evie’s impending nuptials. No immediate solution presents itself (ask the residents of Florence, Ore.), but the whale is not the only ill wind to have blown in for the wedding. Her mother has also shown up and Evie dreads the ways that her mother will try to use the presence of the dead whale to pronounce judgment on all of Evie’s choices.

Deserted by her mother as a girl, Evie is raised by a father who is frequently checked out, but she benefits from the presence of an Orca pod of women who nurture her as she grows from young girl to woman. Evie is also buoyed by her friendship with Rook.

“Rook held my hand so tightly that our fingers were laced together. She said things like she would protect me, save me, make sure Bunny didn’t break my heart. Rook knew the things I wished a mother would know. It was hard not to need Rook in this way, to rely on her to tell me things were fine, and then to watch her make my life feel better and bigger.”

The ocean and its cetacean residents are a constant presence throughout the narrative, as Van Meter marks section breaks with titles like “Tsunami” and “Wind,” and utilizes Evie’s work as a marine mammal researcher to spotlight the lessons to be gained from studying whale behavior. In fluid and nutrient-rich prose, Van Meter creates a sense of island life that will have even the most dedicated landlubbers tasting salt on their lips.

 Lorraine Berry is a writer in Florida.

By: Crissy Van Meter.
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 241 pages, $25.95.