Swimming Lessons [Buy Now]

Mira Books,

By Mary Alice Monroe

432 pages, $21.95

“Last night, Toy dreamed again of the turtle.” So begins Mary Alice Monroe’s Swimming Lessons, the sequel to her bestselling novel The Beach House. Picking up five years after that book left off, the new installment returns readers to the Isle of Palms and the same group of “turtle ladies,” at the beginning of the sea turtle nesting season. For readers here in Charleston, it’s a comfortable setting — familiar, attractive, with recognizably Southern characters. And Swimming Lessons is a good story, heartwarming at times and with compelling characters, a perfect beach read if ever there was one. Yet the real strength of Monroe’s novel — the thing that roots it so thoroughly not just in the South but right here in town — is the backstory of the sea turtle hospital at the S.C. Aquarium.

The Sea Turtle Rescue Program, as it is officially called, was created shortly after the Aquarium opened in 2000, almost by accident. Although this area is a hotspot for four different species of sea turtle (all of them threatened or endangered), until 2000 there was no facility in the state that could care for injured or sick animals. Beached turtles had to be transported to Topsail Beach, N.C., in a four- to six-hour drive, or even further south, to Marineland, Fla. Often the turtles didn’t make it through the journey, and for a species seeing worrisome drops in population, any loss is devastating.

When the S.C. Department of Natural Resources approached Aquarium staff with a stranded turtle in Aug. 2000, the Aquarium agreed to take it on and to help with more strandings, as they could. Today, the Aquarium’s sea turtle hospital serves as the Lowcountry’s primary rescue and rehab center.

Much of this appears in Swimming Lessons. Monroe is an avid conservationist herself, and her novels often rely on the interplay between people and nature. In this case, the people are protagonist Toy Sooner, her five-year-old daughter, and the rest of the Turtle Team ladies. The Isle of Palms is so integral to the story that it nearly becomes a character itself. It’s particularly interesting that nearly all the content in the novel regarding the Aquarium and its turtles is factual.

Monroe was given access to the Aquarium’s medical logs, and so each turtle case in her story, from where it was found to the injuries it suffered, is authentic. Big Girl, the turtle “star” of the novel, actually underwent treatment at the Aquarium. In any other fictional work, Big Girl’s gradual recovery from emaciation and weakness to strength would be little more than a metaphor for the main human character’s growth and development. Yet in this book, Big Girl exists in her own right — her life story is just as valid as Toy’s.

Monroe deals with Toy’s personal and professional life almost equally, and although one side of the story primarily involves people and the other chiefly turtles, it’s to her credit that the two work so well together here. Like the ocean that is the setting for Swimming Lessons, Toy’s story ebbs and flows from one location to another, from biology to love, from animals to people.

One might even suggest this is an outgrowth of Monroe’s own relation to her calling. On the question of whether she’s more writer or conservationist, Monroe says, “The two are completely intertwined. My role, first and foremost, is a novelist — I’m a storyteller. But my goal is to present the story to my readers in such a way that when they close the book, they’ve not only read a good book, they’ve learned something as well.”

The method must work, as Monroe’s a New York Times bestselling author. That means more than just exceptional sales and public exposure for Monroe. It means that people all over the country are listening.

“I have found, to my delight, that [readers] care about the environment, they care about the sea turtles. They want to learn more,” says the author. And that, in turn, inspires her to write more.

Kelly Thorvalson, the Aquarium’s rescue program coordinator, is one of the staff members with whom Monroe worked closely while researching Swimming Lessons. Monroe calls Thorvalson her “mentor” in the study of injured and sick turtles. Thorvalson recalls that Monroe’s research included volunteering at the hospital and helping to release several turtles back into the ocean.

There’s a similarity of goals between these women, as well.

“As a conservation facility, it is just as important to educate the public on the plight of sea turtles as it is to save the individuals,” Thorvalson says. “We need to help folks understand that they, too, can do things that will save sea turtles.”

The Aquarium achieves that through visitor programs, outreach programs, and exhibits. Monroe does it through her books. In Swimming Lessons, no matter how much interest one has in marine wildlife, it is impossible to care for the people in the story without caring for the turtles they watch over.

“Sea turtle population decline is directly related to human activity,” Thorvalson says. “They are ancient mariners, having swum the oceans for hundreds of millions of years, and we have to change the way we are doing things so they don’t vanish during our lifetime.