In Ashley Herring Blake’s third middle-grade novel, Hazel Bly and the Deep Blue Sea, 12-year-old Hazel is always alert and always prepared: “I’d say I’ve probably saved us from at least a few catastrophes, dozens of minor injuries, and myriad everyday annoyances and mishaps,” she boasts.
Hazel never leaves the house without her Safety Pack, which includes, at a minimum, “Band-Aids, Neosporin, sunblock, a travel pack of Clorox wipes, hand sanitizer, bug spray, hair elastics, tweezers, a mini-flashlight, an extra phone charger, a couple of granola bars, and a twenty-dollar bill.” Hazel sees danger everywhere; in her eyes, even bonfires and s’mores on the beach connote “raging fires, flammable clothing all over the place, and sharp pokers in the dark.”
Hazel is also grieving. It’s been two years since she saw her Mum die in a kayaking accident that left Hazel with a badly scarred face. “In a blink, she disappeared from my life and I couldn’t do anything to stop it,” Hazel says. “That’s how fast your life can flip totally upside down, crushing you, knocking you sideways until you can’t breathe, until you’re sure, you’re sure, you’ll never get another deep breath ever again.” So she is leaving nothing to chance when it comes to protecting her 5-year-old sister, Peach, and her other mother, Evelyn. Ever since the accident, the family has been on the move, never staying anywhere more than a few months and never opening up to strangers. In fact, they haven’t even opened up to one another, and Hazel is suffering under a heavy burden of anger, guilt, and a feeling she calls “The Sadness.”
But when they arrive at picturesque Sea Rose Cottage in Rose Harbor, Maine, everything begins to change. The first people they meet are Claire, an old friend of Evelyn’s, and Claire’s daughter Lemon. Evelyn was Claire’s first love, and the two women begin spending time alone together, much to Hazel’s dismay. She fears that her Mum is being forgotten, erased from their family. Lemon is as open and bubbly as Hazel is guarded and suspicious, but their moms push them together, and Hazel is introduced to Lemon’s friends Kiko and Jules.
Outspoken and protective, Kiko quickly expresses her opinion of Hazel’s hostility, but Jules, who uses they/them pronouns, is more welcoming. The three friends fill Hazel in on the local legend of the Rose Maid, a young girl who lost her family in a shipwreck and eventually returned to the sea in the form of a mermaid, who they believe still lives in the harbor. They are stunned by Hazel’s physical resemblance to the tragic figure, which even Hazel has to concede when she sees a photograph in a local exhibit. Still, Hazel resists their friendship, admitting, “Every time I think that I might want a friend, I’m hit by this feeling that, if I’m happy, that must mean that Mum didn’t matter. It must mean I’m fine without her and how can you ever be fine without your favorite person, the person who loved you most, accepted you most, made you laugh and think and feel brave?”
All Hazel wants to do is return to the happy home in California where her family lived with Mum, but no matter how she struggles toward that objective, fate seems to have other plans. As relationships deepen around her, she begins to understand that she is not the only person who is grieving and that shared sorrow can bring unexpected blessings of comfort and courage.
“The Sadness flows all around us like the wind,” she acknowledges, “all kinds of missing, all kinds of loss.” In Hazel Bly and the Deep Blue Sea, Blake, a former Nashvillian, continues to confront the hard subjects of trauma and loss, identity and community, forgiveness and redemption — subjects she sensitively explored in her previous books for middle grade and YA readers. That she does so within the context of a magical beach-themed mermaid mystery can only be a plus for her young readers.
Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.
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