Hard cover, dust jacket, 6 x 9, 440 pgs.
Season: Fall, 2005
Reviews & blurbs
from Paige Lovitt, Reviewer for Reader Views
I thoroughly enjoyed Memoirs of a Shape-Shifter. . . . This story is very suspenseful and the characters are well developed. I highly recommend this book to people who enjoy suspenseful novels that have a touch of magic in them. The way that the author is able to intertwine the past with the present really allows for some rich reading. His descriptive text makes the reader feel more like they are enjoying a movie instead of reading. . . .
from Kevan Manwaring, Reviewer for The Druid Network
I have enjoyed getting to grips with this Protean tale. It is worth holding onto for the truth at its heart. It is full of secret treasure: about the mysteries of men and women, how the past inhabits us, and how the land shapes us. Kaplan-Maxfield’s attempt to walk between the worlds of the Actual and Imaginary, the ancient and modern, the secular and sacred, is admirable, fascinating and rewarding. . . .
That a forty year old cynical manhunting ex-lawyer of Finnish-Irish descent, Nikki Helmik, could be descended from a female line of druids seems far-fetched on the face of it, but I have an American friend who claims just that, and the author carries it off convincingly through creating an air of verisimilitude via a gritty modern setting – a very post 9-11 America sundered by politics and conflict. From the opening line: ‘The soul of Gloucester is split as the souls of its sons and daughters are split…’ the theme of division is explored, chiefly through the legacy and line of Anne Cleves, Nikki’s druidic ancestor who sailed to America bearing her pagan ways, in stark contrast to the Puritan founding fathers: and so from the its genesis, the creation of a New World, Kaplan-Maxfield suggests a schism hard-wired into the American soul. The author bravely sets about if not healing, at least probing this deep old wound. Nikki Helmik is emblematic of a land disconnected from its past, and consequently making the same mistakes again and again. Nikki’s quest is to learn from this past, to accept her true nature and to acquiesce to ‘negative capability’, Keats’ notion of an ability to dwell in mystery, the Romantic riposte to Newton’s God of Reason.
Her journey to self-actualisation is a painful one, coloured by a distinctly New England brand of American Gothic, invoking the ghosts of Irving, Hawthorne, Poe, even Miller’s The Crucible, with its Salem Witch Trails a metaphor of contemporary persecution. Perhaps the latter’s McCarthyism is meant to be allude to the new kind of paranoia prevalent in a America of Homeland Security, biometric firewalls at airports, the Patriot Act and heightened xenophobia. Yet this story is a very localised one, though never parochial, as it focuses in on the minutiae of one small coastal town as a microcosm for the sundered world, evoking along the way love of detail and texture of the small town life in The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx and the dreamtown of Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. Indeed, at times, the prose takes on a distinctly poetic quality, though never verging into the purple. The landscapes, townscapes and seascapes are particularly well evoked, creating a strong sense of place. The streets and bars of Gloucester, and the groves and caves of Dogtown are vividly rendered. Likewise, the characters are equally as quirky and memorable, although some do seem larger than life, as Nikki ventures further down the ‘rabbit hole’. Joe, an insane savant ex-Harvard professor seems at first a complete tone malfunction; played as something between T.H. White’s Merlyn, and Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil (and Robin William’s traumatised scholar from Gilliam’s The Fisher King). However, it seems to fit into the narrative as it transforms into a quest into the Celtic past. The most solid of characters seems to be Clarissa, an ex-lover of Ernest, Nikki’s father fixation, a genuine mountain woman, straight from the Thoreau school of common sense and earthy wisdom, as well as a fiery feminist Diana, a woman who literally runs with the wolves. The sequence where she takes Nikki through a much needed rites of passage is one of the strongest in the book. The catharsis she goes through as the ghost of her ex-lovers is powerful, and emotionally honest. And depicted from a woman’s point of view, convincingly realised. Kaplan-Maxfield excels at depicting the battleground between the sexes. But there is real insight and foulweather love to be found at the heart of the bitterness he describes both genders feeling and inflicting. There is much life wisdom gone into the book, something that only a writer with substantial life experience could achieve. This is not a book born of spring, but of autumn, and within it are contained the golden fruits of summer.
Kaplan-Maxfield depicts the Celtic past and tumultuous transition to the New World as vividly as the Otherworld. In fact, this central section of the book: consisting of a letter from Nikki’s mother relating her denied pagan heritage, and then the translated journal of Anne Cleve’s outshines the contemporary setting, which becomes little more than a framing narrative, albeit a convincing one. At the heart of this novel seems to be an old-fashioned tale of heroes, heroines, villains, myth and magic that the author perhaps truly wanted to tell, but living in cynical, secular, post-Millennium times, he has had to frame it all within an ‘every day’ setting. Yet this provides the Normal World, that the Everywoman figure of Nikki leaves, to go on her quest for knowledge, for true identity, in the Special World of the past, the Oz to Gloucester’s Kansas. And, just as in The Wizard of Oz, the characters she meets seem larger than life versions of the people who populate her everyday life. She returns with a greater awareness of who she is and where she belongs – finding her heart at long last in her own home. Her experiences give her a greater awareness and appreciation of her surroundings, of her relationships. She has found her family, her community and her place in it. She has claimed her past, or rather, it has claimed her. In hunting for, discovering and translating the memoirs, Nikki herself is ‘translated’. She taps into and becomes part of her ancestral story, and in doing so, discovers the magic of language and the magic within herself. Kaplan-Maxfield epitomises this process through the advice of Nikki’s mother, read in a letter after her death: ‘By writing you write a story, becoming a character in that story. It alters you fundamentally, changing your nature – and this just may be the magic that we practice.’
Failings are perhaps inevitable in a book of this size, but they do not diminish Kaplan-Maxfield’s incredible achievement. Nevertheless, there are flaws, like the soul of Gloucester itself. Fault-lines that run through the book include the constant garbling of Druidry and Witchcraft – the two are often confused, the former being depicted as the latter, although the author wisely states: ‘the roots of Druid knowledge and this circle [wind] underground to the same Oak’. However, druids generally are supposed to meet in the ‘eye of the sun,’ not at night; wear white, not black; perform public ceremonies, not spells; hold gorseddau, not sabbats; and worship the sun, not the moon. The ‘druids’ in the book do all of these things. Of course, in the modern reinvention of druidry all of these things are permissible and are probably likely to happen, yet the point of the druidic circle in the book is that it is a supposed authentic continuation of an original tradition. Considering this tradition was all but lost in Ireland and British Isles and cannot claim an unbroken lineage in its native land, it seems highly unlikely to have survived the crossing to America, even though some folk traditions did migrate and were preserved (i.e. Scottish Border Ballads in the Appalachians). Shape-changing, use of Ogham and the Three Illuminations does occur, as well as Bardic and Vatic practises, which goes some way to redeeming the novel’s claim to be druidic, yet his secretive witch-druids are not the kind you would see performing grand public ceremonies at Avebury or Stonehenge, or MCing Eisteddfodau! . . .
Nevertheless, this novel contains deep wisdom from a genuine tradition – enough to act as a primer for anyone interested in the Druidic Tradition – and it deserves to be acknowledged as an incredible achievement. If there had to be one great Celtic American Novel, I think this would have to be it. Kaplan-Maxfield has built a beautiful bridge between two worlds and two cultures, and any attempt at bridge-building on this fragmented planet has got to be admired. He should be proud of his effort, and if you take the effort the read this mighty tome, you will be rewarded with more than fairy gold.
from Kathleen Youmans, Reviewer for ForeWordreviews.com
"Anne’s voice carries through the centuries, narrating a magical and terrifying account of her life as healer and shape-shifter that parallels and illuminates her descendant, the modern Nikki’s life. . . . Anne’s world is populated by witch hunters and fairy queens, and it is the author’s gift that brings such a sense of reality to this, his fourth novel. His fifteen years teaching writing and literature are well represented here.
"Womanhood in all its aspects, both magical and mundane, is explored brilliantly and courageously by the author, who writes with brutal honesty of the weaknesses of the human heart, yet finds beauty and compassion even in the most lost character.
"Nikki Helmik is one gloriously flawed protagonist: she smokes, drinks, and has had more men than she can even remember, and yet the reader finds herself cheering for her as she reaches into the spiritual side of herself.
"Memoirs of a Shape-Shifter is a story that is sure to enchant even the most cynical reader."
from Pete, Reviewer for Pagan Poet
"[T]his . . . tale of self discovery requires a little patience, but is oh so worth it! Thoroughly enjoyable."
from Mayra Calvani, Reviewer for Curled Up With A Good Book
"Memoirs of a Shape-Shifter is a modern gothic novel that goes beyond the more common commercial form of the genre. Along with magic, ravens, wolves, and a mysterious emerald brooch, the author also explores the female psychology, male-and-female relationships, and feminist issues.
"The dialogue . . . flows naturally and sparkles with genuineness, and the author does an excellent job putting himself in the mind of the female protagonist. Through the journal, the reader is transported into another time and place with all the sights and sounds of those dark times. In fact, reading the ancient Druid’s first-person account is the most fascinating aspect of the book."
from Eugene G. Schwartz, Editor at Large, ForeWord Magazine, ForeWord This Week 12.07.05/"Publishing: Hands-On and With Full Heart (Annual Small Press Center book fair dazzles our editor) "
"There are also always a number of plucky first book authors at the show, whose first novels merit attention and can be a good read. Three that I would mention are [ . . .] and Memoirs of a Shape Shifter by Thomas Kaplan-Maxfield, a contemporary love story that takes the reader back to magic and warfare in 1690’s New England and Celtic and Druid lore, www.keplerpress.com."
from Tracy Farnsworth, Reviewer for www.roundtablereviews.com
"The writing is highly descriptive; the word gorgeous comes to mind. Settings are built with tremendous care, characters are multi-faceted, and the legend is incredible. The dark tone usually found in gothic novels makes it hard for me to fully enjoy the novel. However, I also realize that this is a personal issue. Gothic fans will be delighted with this novel.
"There are aspects to this book that make it stand out. The element of the paranormal blends fluidly with the setting and characters. The smooth changes between third person (Nikki's story) and first person (Anne's diary) draw the reader in deeper. If you enjoy Gothic novels, you must read Memoirs of a Shape-Shifter."
from Kathy Perschmann, Reviewer for www.armchairinterviews.com
"This book is a fascinating study of a woman's return to her roots, of her discoveries about her past and her feelings about love and power.
"An absorbing read, with fascinating information on Druids and the history of Salem."
from Christina Winikoff, Reviewer for Book Review Cafe
"This novel is an amazing glimpse at women who are trying to make peace with who they are and with society's perception of who they are. It's also a thoughtful look at the warring emotions women juggle throughout life as they seek to find their purpose and direction.
"Filled with the lore and mysticism of Celtic Druids, this book is fascinating from cover to cover. Memoirs of a Shape-Shifter is a great book for readers who are curious about old world magic, but also for any reader interested in the struggle of self-acceptance that women have undergone in the past and still do today."
from Small Press Bookwatch, Midwest Book Review
"Memoirs of a Shape-Shifter is a fantastic novel with Gothic qualities. Transitioning between the present day story of a young woman and the discovered journal of her ancestor, penned in colonial-era New England, Memoirs of a Shape Shifter follows both the modern woman's struggles with the crises in her life, and her ancestor's struggles. The descendant becomes a Druid magician just like her ancestor, responsible for the knife-edge balance between power and love. Entangled and complex, Memoirs of a Shape-Shifter draws the reader into its webs of conflicting motives and does not let go until the final page."
from Emily Veinglory, Reviewer on Bookpleasures.com
"Publicity material from Kepler Press described this book as 'chicklit written by a man' but nothing could be further from the truth. Chick lit (much as I love it) is 'lite' entertainment and Memoirs of a Shape-Shifter is a dense, dark and complex story. Put aside time to read it in a quiet room with your full concentration. This book reminded me that reading can, perhaps should, be an active act of interrogation.
"The story is about Nikki Helmik, a disillusioned woman returning to the house she was raised in. Haunted by the recent death of her abusive father and a married man she loved, Nikki quits her job and launches into a new affair whilst still groping to free herself from her troubled past. We are quickly plunged into layers of relationships with the mentors and lovers of Nikki's youth, a new man in her life, visiting friends, family, the journal of an ancestor, new friends and mentors, and ghosts…. The story takes a twisted and decidedly gothic path through tangled pasts and current mysteries to a suitably subdued epiphany at the end. Nikki pulls the parts of her life together into a spiritual whole, making peace with all the dark secrets that lead to her current place in life.
"Memoirs uses an interesting Druidic mythos at the heart of the story to provide Nikki with the insights and personal development that she desperately needs. These deep and magical themes are echoed in the complex, poetic and slightly archaic style of Thomas Kaplan-Maxfield's writing. His characters' dialogue is intelligent and wide-ranging and his descriptions make the town and the house characters in their own right with their own history and outlook. The result is often poetic, but occasionally pretentious and overtly clever.
"I would only have two complaints about this intriguing story. One is the relentlessly dispassionate way in which it is written. Rather than being put into Nikki's shoes her life and feelings are dissected lovingly before us. This makes the earlier part of the book hardgoing, but after a few chapters the twists and turns of Nikki's family history and current relationships entangled my interest. I still found that at times the narrative was claustrophobic and static with a great deal of dialogue and only occasional bursts of dramatic action. Secondly the cover price of this book at $25 even is high indeed for a book that will not be to everyone's taste. However the reader willing to throw themselves into Kaplan-Maxfield's unique occult brand of psychological archaeology will find they've got their money's worth."
from Tami Brady, Reviewer for TCM Reviews
"Nikki Helmik is a woman who is used to getting whatever she wants from men. At a very young age, Nikki experienced abuse at the hands of her father and watched her mother turn from a vibrant woman into her father’s slave. From then on, she vowed never to allow a man into her heart. So with the help of her mentor Rose, Nikki learned how to use men for her personal satisfaction and to increase her social standing. A series of strange events, however, would change the way Nikki viewed her mother as well as her own love and power issues.
"Memoirs of a Shape-Shifter is actually three stories in one, each with a correspondingly different feel and attitude. The first story is about Nikki and takes place in the present day. This story has a slow unhurried almost Victorian feel with the every present attitude that men are just sources of wealth and status. The second story is about Nikki’s mother. This account is more energetic but containing the energy of frustration, sacrifice, and trying to do the right thing despite the personal costs. The third story is about Anne Cleves, a powerful druidic ancestor of Nikki and her mother. This story is wild, dramatic, and full of action. As each story progresses, the main character of Nikki evolves and changes from a user to a woman willing to embrace her powerful legacy."
from George O'Har, author of Psychic Fair
“In a tale rich with Gothic underpinnings, Kaplan-Maxfield has created a psychologically convincing female lead character in forty-year-old Nikki Helmik, a woman whose journey into history and self-awareness will remind readers of Jane Eyre…”
from the book jacket
A spell-binding novel, Memoirs of a Shape-Shifter twists the eternal tension between love and power into a marvelous Celtic knot.
Nikki Helmik—anger-prone, no-longer-young feminist, single mother, and erstwhile Cambridge lawyer—following her father’s recent death has returned to the vacant family home in Gloucester, Massachusetts, to begin a new and quieter life. Her yellow-shingled cottage lies under the branches of mysterious Dogtown woods, once home to Druids and witches. But Nikki grows increasingly unsettled to find herself caught by the charms of the princely Philip, a married man who has recently moved back to the family estate yet who proves maddeningly elusive.
Or has Nikki got it backwards: Is she in fact the fleeing one, mistaking emotion for feeling and presuming matters of romance as women’s natural territory? The earth’s escalating tremors soon leave her shaken to the core when she discovers the lost journal of her shape-shifting ancestor, Anne Cleves, a Druid princess and powerful magician living in Dogtown during the period of the Salem witch trials. Defending herself against her beautiful mentor’s vengeance, Nikki must race against her own tangled desires and the bend of time while translating the arcane work, finally to be initiated into her own Druid nature.
This woman’s post-millenium journey of self-discovery swoops and plunges amidst the rocky cliffs of the New England coast and in its deep forests. Nikki’s story is intertwined with her foremother’s riveting first-person tale, vividly presented as living history steeped exotically in Celtic lore. Kaplan-Maxfield’s artful story-telling provocatively enacts the mystery at the heart of the book: the power of words to make magic—in the process turning our conventional understanding of power on its head.
from the back cover
A work of fiction with Gothic undertones shifting between present-day and colonial New England, Memoirs of a Shape-Shifter contains within the third-person narrative of Nikki Helmik the found journal of her ancestor, Anne Cleves, written strikingly in first-person. A dramatic story of love, loss, and Druid magic, Anne’s journal strangely echoes Nikki’s own struggle to resolve the crises in her life. Haunted and inspired by her ancestor, Nikki becomes a Druid magician, resolving for herself the deadly attraction between power and love.
This psychological exploration of a woman’s all-too-contemporary personal upheaval oscillates between realism and romance, contemplative drama and adventure story, replete with Druid magicians, centuries-old curses, wolves, ravens, and the mystery of a broken brooch. Down Gloucester’s narrow streets, deep into Dogtown woods, teetering on granite cliffs and plunged into stormy North Atlantic seas, the reader is drawn into a labyrinth in which the age-old war of the sexes is given a new twist.