Mary Underwater

mary underwater shannon doleski

Inspired by Joan of Arc, a girl builds and pilots a submarine to prove just what girls can do in this masterful middle-grade debut

Mary Murphy feels like she’s drowning. Her violent father is home from prison, and the social worker is suspicious of her new bruises. An aunt she’s never met keeps calling. And if she can’t get a good grade on her science project, she’ll fail her favorite class. But Mary doesn’t want to be a victim anymore. She has a plan: build a real submarine, like the model she’s been making with Kip Dwyer, the secretly sweet class clown. Gaining courage from her heroine, Joan of Arc, Mary vows to pilot a sub across the Chesapeake Bay, risking her life in a modern crusade to save herself. Mary Underwater is an empowering tale of persistence, heroism, and hope from a luminous new voice in middle-grade fiction.

240 pages                            978-1419740800                       Ages 10-14

Keywords:  girl power, courage, finding yourself, empowerment, perseverance, submarine, STEM, father/daughter, dysfunctional family, child abuse, 10 year old, 11 year old, 12 year old 13 year old, Chesapeake Bay, overcoming adversity, consequences


Mary lives on the coast of the Chesapeake Bay with her mother and her abusive father who is frequently in jail for various assault charges. She goes to a local Catholic school where the nuns are very concerned about her, and she does have a social worker assigned to her, but her mother always feels that the abuse is her own fault. When her aunt Betty moves into town, Mary's life improves a bit, although her father won't have anything to do with Betty and her wife. At the end of the year, a science project with a boy at her school, Kip, gets Mary very interested in submersibles, and with the help of an eccentric local scientist, the two work on building a working model, funded by Mary's job helping her aunt at the public library. Things don't go smoothly, and her father damages the craft at one point, and also assaults Kip, which doesn't help the budding romance between the two. Can Mary manage to take the submersible across the bay, reconnect with Kip, and find a safe place to live?

Strengths: This had several things going for it; a good sense of place in the setting, a student in a Catholic school, a nice romance, and a character with an abusive home life. My students love to read these stories, because it makes their own lives look good in comparison. I liked that Mary had a best friend who was concerned for her and that she had an aunt and a social worker who were looking out for her. Her father does end up in trouble for his actions. The story is well written and moves along quickly.

Weaknesses: I really enjoyed Mary's romance with Kip, and her struggles with her home life were interesting, but I struggled to believe that she and Kip could actually build a submersible.

What I really think: I'm debating, but the sections talking about Joan of Arc really pushed this across the line of accessibility for my readers. Building the submersible was quirky enough, and even though my students usually like to read about children in bad situations like Mary's, this didn't strike quite the right tone somehow. If the public library has it, I probably won't purchase it. I can see this being a big hit with school that focus on STEM learning or enjoy quirky a bit more than my students do.

Reviewed by:  Karen Yingling, School Librarian, Ohio USA

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