The Swan Keeper

The Swan Keeper.jpg

From USA Today featured novelist and Western Writers of America Spur award finalist Milana Marsenich, The Swan Keeper is an historical, coming-of-age novel set in 1920s Montana.

Girlhood, courage, nature, and flight from a tyrant’s hand in post-frontier Montana.

The Swan Keeper is an historical, coming of age novel set in Northwest Montana's Mission Valley in the late 1920s.

Lillian Connelly loves trumpeter swans and vows to protect them from a hunter who is killing them and leaving their carcasses for the wolves and coyotes to ravage.

On her eleventh birthday Lilly’s family visits the Cattail Marsh to see the newly hatched cygnets. The family outing turns tragic when Dean Drake shows up with his shotgun and fires on not only the swans, but on Lilly’s family. Unable to prevent tragedy, Lillian witnesses Drake kill her father, injure her mother, and slaughter the bevy of trumpeter swans.

The sheriff, Charlie West, thinks that Lilly is reacting to the trauma and blaming Drake because of a previous conflict between Drake and her father. Lilly’s mother, sister, and her best friend, Jerome West, the sheriff’s son, all think the same thing: that Lilly is trying to make sense of a senseless accident.

Left alone to bring Dean Drake to justice, Lilly’s effort is subverted when Drake woos her sister, courts her mother, and moves into their home.

Genre: Fiction

Author: Milana Marsenich

Published: April 20th, 2018

Pages: 247

Publishing House: Open Books

My Review

A stunning piece of fiction based on the exploitation of trumpeter swans in the Montana Flathead area and inspired by the efforts to reintroduce these amazing creatures back into nature. Gorgeously written in the highest of literary senses, this novel draws on the wisdom of observing nature and paints the most beautiful of rugged, yet tender landscapes imaginable.


“This is a secret story,” she said, trying to sound like her father, “told by the swan keepers of long ago. The mission Valley was a breeding ground for a large flock of trumpeter swans, back when the trumpeter roamed freely, guarding a hundred acres at a time from predators. They build their nests in the swampy areas and flew out on the lakes. They ruled the sky, the earth, and the water. They kept their eggs from the cougar and warded off the raven. Man saw the bird in all his royalty. Jealous Man watched the bird fly, swim, and walk the earth. Man could only walk and swim.  ….Man couldn’t bear to have the swan go where he could not go, and caught the bird. He stripped his plumage and pinned the swan to the earth. For a whole season he watched the trumpeter forage in the swamp and walk the wetlands. With his feathers cut, he could no longer fly and the skies became dark.”


Lilly is a Swan Keeper with all her heart and soul. She is eleven years old and lives in the Mission Mountains of Montana surrounded by beautiful landscapes and wildlife. Her father takes her often to the waterfowl and together they observe the swans. It’s the time of year where cygnets are at their most vulnerable, needing the protection of their parents. Lilly feels like one of them, part swan running in her veins. It’s a magical childhood, free of hate and full of wonder and imagination.


“Before her very eyes the pine tree turned into a handsome, vast giant. Eleven. She, Lilian Grace Connelly of the Mission Mountains, had a whole year to figure out what being eleven meant: A year of giants and cloud paintings, of swan friends and star meadows, of glorious dreams, awake or asleep”


But her world shatters that day when her parents and her sister have a picnic and bullets fly that kill the swans, cygnets, her father and leave her mother in temporary paralysis and speechless. The worst part of it: Lilly saw who did it!


“That’s what Lilly did that afternoon after they buried her father. She slipped into her bedroom, unnoticed and lifeless, in a house that smelled stale and forlorn. God had evidently taken her heart after all. It was probably criteria for stopping…., to meet him where he lived, to stand on his ground, to live with not heart”


“Lilly missed her parents. Sadness crept up and surged through her veins. Tears caressed her face like the old friends they’d become, leaving limp and ragged as an old doll. She closed her eyes. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt so badly if she didn’t look at the world going on as if nothing horrible had happened. The trumpeter sitting near her babies, muskrat swimming, baby mallards paddling after their mother, the long grasses and tree branches bending in the wind all went on unchanged by her father’s death.”


As the world keeps turning, Lilly is devastated.

With all her might, she wants to make her mom well again and bring the man to justice that did this to her family. But as the adults in her life don’t believe her, she has to be more brave and courageous then she ever has. Her determination for justice puts her in danger many times as she becomes the next target in a tangled tragedy of poaching swans and the continuous forces of good and evil that began way before she was ever born.


“Here you go, one just for you,” he said, cornering her against a cluster of rocks. He swung a dead swan at Lilly, hitting her in the arms and body with it. She closed her eyes as it hit her in the head and knocked her down. When she opened her eyes, the dead swan stared at here with thick, black eyes.”

“Biting her lip, she reached down, wrapped her cold fingers around its neck and pulled it out of its early grave. The soft cotton neck was limb in her palm. Its black button eyes looked up at her. Someone had sewn on a flat black bill. Feathers of silk and wool, moth eaten and flattened by time, lined his back in a stiff icy blanket.”


Will Lilly be able to prevail the evil that is creeping into her life and that of her mothers’? How many more swans have to die before this senseless killer will be caught?




Absolutely stunning and heart wrenching. I had to use so many quotations in my review because the writing simply speaks for itself and I wanted to give other readers a taste of its brilliance.

This book was amazingly beautiful. It had all the right measures of heart, compassion and suspense. Lilly’s zest for life and her unprejudiced nature is captured perfectly the way childhood should be and the changes she goes through to cope after devastation. The tragic events that take place absolutely shatter a reader’s heart. Especially the scene where she is hit with the swan. That one really got to me.

I love it when a book indirectly serves as a reminder of something that happens or has happened in reality. It therefore lead me to look up the trumpeter swans and their natural habitat in the Mission Valley Mountains in Montana, where I found a bit of history and learned about the real rehabilitation efforts made of this species (I have links attached at the bottom). As a nature lover and enthusiast, I was truly fascinated by the author’s ability to make the setting come to life. I have not visited this far north into that mountain range, but reading about it made me visualize my cold breath escaping on a crisp morning, smell wildflowers, hear the splash of natural springs and animal noises scattered around and witness beautiful sunsets . A literary feast.

I am so glad I was able to read The Swan Keeper and warmly recommend it to anyone who loves their senses and heart shook up in the best of ways. This should not be missed and it easily makes it on the list of my favorite books of 2018.

Enjoy and read on some of the articles I have attached.


Thank you so much Milana Marsenich for my signed copy of your book. I loved it :)

All opinions are my own. Thank you.


Audubon Magazine

Conservation: Led by Tribal Scientists, Montana’s Trumpeter Swan Revival Is a Triumph. After two decades the Flathead Indian Reservation’s breeding program prepares for its swan song.

Montana Waterfowl Foundation

Packed with information and beautiful pictures.


Wildlife biologists prepare floating nest for trumpeter swan reintroduction

The Trumpeter Swan Society

The Trumpeter Swan Society (TTSS) is a non-profit organization, founded in 1968. Our mission is to assure the vitality and welfare of wild Trumpeter Swans. We invite you to join this vital and important mission.

"Inquisitive" Photograph by Kim Stevenson @