A Sweet Sting of Salt

A Novel



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April 9, 2024 | ISBN 9780593823040

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About the Book

Once a young woman uncovers a dark secret about her neighbor and his mysterious new wife, she’ll have to fight to keep herself—and the woman she loves—safe in this stunning queer reimagining of the classic folktale “The Selkie Wife.”

“Laced with a slow-building sense of Gothic dread, Sutherland’s captivating debut is an intensely beautiful experience you won’t soon forget.”—Paulette Kennedy, author of The Witch of Tin Mountain

When a sharp cry wakes Jean in the middle of the night during a terrible tempest, she’s convinced it must have been a dream. But when the cry comes again, Jean ventures outside and is shocked by what she discovers—a young woman in labor, drenched to the bone in the bitter cold and able to speak barely a word of English.

Although Jean is the only midwife for miles around, she’s at a loss for who this woman is or where she’s from; Jean can only assume that she must be the new wife of the neighbor up the road, Tobias. And when Tobias does indeed arrive at her cabin in search of his wife, Muirin, Jean’s questions continue to multiply. Why has he kept his wife’s pregnancy a secret? And why does Muirin’s open demeanor change completely the moment she’s in his presence?

Though Jean learned long ago that she should stay out of other people’s business, her growing concern—and growing feelings—for Muirin mean that she can’t simply set her worries aside. But when the answers she finds are more harrowing than she ever could have imagined, she fears she may have endangered herself, Muirin, and the baby. Will she be able to put things right and save the woman she loves before it’s too late, or will someone have to pay for Jean’s actions with their life?
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Praise for A Sweet Sting of Salt

“Sutherland’s atmospheric, feminist retelling of the selkie wife folk tale is a mesmerizing debut.”The Washington Post

“Lush, atmospheric, and threaded with multiple kinds of magic.”Paste
“A gorgeous tale of sapphic yearning laced with a slow-building sense of Gothic dread, Sutherland’s captivating debut is an intensely beautiful experience you won’t soon forget.”—Paulette Kennedy, bestselling author of The Witch of Tin Mountain

A Sweet Sting of Salt masterfully combines rich historical detail with an atmospheric, poignant romance between two unforgettable women that will sweep readers off their feet. For fans of feminist retellings and queer fairy tales, Sutherland’s debut is a must-read.”—Allison Epstein, author of Let the Dead Bury the Dead

“Sutherland’s thoughtful prose mirrors the environment, dotted with echoes of Brontëan romantic longing—but with heroines who have the inner strength to determine their own happy endings.”—Maureen Marshall, author of The Paris Affair

“A masterful work, A Sweet Sting of Salt will linger in my imagination as vividly as any bit of ancient folklore, long after the last page.”—Laura R. Samotin, author of The Sins on Their Bones

“Sutherland plunges us into the forbidden desires of nineteenth-century hearts, then rescues us with the deepest kinds of uniting love. Her vibrant depiction of the Nova Scotian shore fills our lungs with salted air and imbues us with a yearning for the sea.”—Gwen Tuinman, author of Unrest

“A stunning work filled with beautifully rendered lore, evocative prose, and heroines whose indelible internal strength and magic make you root for them at every turn.”—Felicia Grossman, author of Marry Me by Midnight

“Filled with fierce, unforgettable characters and sweeping landscapes, A Sweet Sting of Salt is a stunning debut from start to finish. Sutherland is most definitely a writer to watch.”—Molly Greeley, author of Marvelous

“Fierce and subversive, A Sweet Sting of Salt transforms the old tale of ‘The Selkie Wife’ into an empowering story about two women full of longing—not only for the sea but also for each other.”—Mary McMyne, author of The Book of Gothel

“Sutherland’s debut is a moody, tense, queer love story, loosely based on the Scottish folktale ‘The Selkie Wife.’”Booklist, starred review
“Wild and windswept just like its setting, A Sweet Sting of Salt is a subversive, lushly romantic historical retelling of an age-old folktale.”—Olesya Salnikova Gilmore, author of The Witch and the Tsar

“Sutherland’s winning debut, set in 1830s coastal Nova Scotia, creates a cozy queer haven [with a] thrilling climax and satisfying resolution. . . . Fans of folkloric fantasy should check this out.”Publishers Weekly
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A Sweet Sting of Salt


November 1832

The ship was burning.

“Sorry . . . ?” Jean looked up from drying her hands on a worn tea towel, frowning at the non sequitur.

“Last night, the ship was burning.” Ida Mae Eisenor waved toward the window over the table in her kitchen as she sat herself up on the sofa. “The moon was full. Everyone says the ghost ship burns in the bay on full-moon nights. Did you see it, out where you are?”

“Oh, sure.” Jean closed the lid of her basket, solid and real. “Had the captain in for tea, too, don’t you know?” She rolled her eyes as she spoke, teasing.

“Jean Langille!” Ida leveled her pinky and pointer fingers at Jean, warning off the evil eye. “You oughtn’t say such things! You’ll have the devil at your door.” With that, she stood, shook her skirts back into place, and went to poke a finger into her dough, testing to see if it had risen enough to go in the oven. When it was done baking, Ida would run a knife ’round the finished loaf and lift it out, rather than turning over the pan and risk turning a ship over with it. That was the superstition, among the German families.

The British had brought the Germans to the South Shore, fresh out of people of their own to settle the colony with, or at least any willing to pay for the dubious privilege of a perilous trip in exchange for hard work and an uncertain reward. England had gone recruiting and come up with a few boatloads of Germans, some French like Jean’s father’s people, and even a handful of reluctant Swiss.

Farmers all, they were set down on a land so full of trees and rocks that they were forced into working the seas and the forests instead. Only their mingled superstitions took root, and those had twined around one another until it was hard to say where one story left off and the next began, which were fanciful and which were true. If something followed you through the wood to the stream, you didn’t know whose boat it had got off of, nor did you care, and you didn’t slow your steps to ask if it was something older still, one of the things the Natives talked more around than about.

The Young Teazer might not have made port on its final voyage, but it had found firm anchor among all the other tales in the twenty years since its demise, said to round the point tipped in silver flame on clear, full-moon nights, only to vanish as sirens and selkies and mermaids did. It was a pretty and romantic notion, the ghost ship, and harmless—as so many pretty, romantic notions were not.

As the village midwife, Jean had seen where romantic notions got you and considered the newly minted Mrs. Eisenor fairly solid evidence of it. A handsome enough lass of seventeen, Ida Mae Mosher had first found herself caught in the family way—and then found herself married within days of the thing being known. The young man involved, Richie, was a pig farmer’s son with a good head of hair and a ready laugh, who’d kissed her breathless after a dance at the hall. The pair of them had certainly had a romantic time, stolen away in a hayloft during a summer thunderstorm, but now it was November, and the three-weeks’ bride was starting to be swollen and sore-footed and not entirely happy with her pig farmer’s son, who hadn’t brought much more to their union than good sausage.

No, Jean wasn’t much for romantic notions herself, not like Ida Mae. Not anymore, for all that some might expect it of a young woman, living all to herself out along a wild stretch of the Nova Scotian coast. Certainly no one had made any effort at trying to court Jean, not since she was nineteen. Not unless she considered the fellow who’d cornered her once and said he’d show her “what was what and set her right” as courting her. She’d caught him in the soft parts with her knee, and she was fairly sure Laurie had had some words with him, too, later, when he was in off the ships; well, words by way of knocking several of the man’s teeth loose, and him off the end of the wharf.

Laurie Ernst was the younger of her mentor Anneke’s two children, and six years Jean’s elder. He was properly named Laurence, though no one ever called him that, and as a child Jean idolized him, following him everywhere she could get away with as though he were truly her older brother. He’d always been astonishingly patient about it. These days, he crewed on a schooner that was back and forth a dozen times a year to the Caribbean, returning with cargos of rum and sugar and fruits that tasted of sunshine. At any rate, between her bony kneecap and Laurie’s fists, Jean hadn’t had similar trouble again.

“Jean?” Ida’s voice interrupted her rambling thoughts. “What do you think you should do, if your marriage is . . . dull? Richie . . .” The girl paused, choosing her next words diplomatically. “It ain’t quite what I expected, being married. I thought there’d be a bit more romance to it somehow. He’s not hardly touched me since the wedding.”

Jean shrugged. She couldn’t say she knew much about marriages, except that she was unlikely to ever make one herself. The village girls had been leaving her out of their gossip for long enough now that her home visits were about as much a look in on the institution as she got. Jean did know about babies, though, and they all knew she did. They respected her as a midwife, at the very least, even if they did still keep her at arm’s length otherwise.

Ida’s babe would be a good while yet in making an appearance—not until well into the new year, God willing. The mother-to-be was healthy and strong, if not in the highest of spirits, but Jean had an answer for that. “Ida, the best thing for you would be to get out of this house for a while, even if it is a bit brisk, on these late fall days. Richie could go along with you.”

It would do the girl good. To take a bit of air, walk a little every day, see people besides her husband. A body needed friends.

Ida hummed and turned toward the cupboard. “Cup of tea before you go?”

“No, thanks.” Jean knew better than to try to become one of those friends herself. It might have been a genuine overture, but she couldn’t bring herself to accept it. She’d learned it was better to keep her distance. She swallowed. “I ought to get back home before the light goes. You’re doing fine, Ida. I’ll be in town to check on you again around the holidays when Evie Hiltz is due, but you can always send Richie out for me before, if you need anything.”

“Too bad. I’m dead curious ’bout that new Mrs. Silber, and I thought maybe you’d have . . .”

Jean let the rest of Ida’s chatter drift by without absorbing another word, bundling herself into her yellow woolen shawl. She supposed it was a blessing the latest gossip wasn’t about her, but that didn’t make pursuing it as a pastime any more attractive.

As she went out, Jean spotted the young Mr. Eisenor at work in the pigpen and paused, considering. A dull marriage. Maybe Ida isn’t the only one who needs advice, Jean thought wryly, then snorted and went to lean on the top rail of the pigpen.


He paused in his work, shovel half lifted, dripping muck. “Yes, miss? Everything all right with Ida?”

He was so young, his answer the same one he’d have given the teacher at the village school a scant few years before. There were only about six years between the two of them, but it might as well have been sixty. Richie, newly married at eighteen and soon enough a father for the first time. Jean, already settled. A spinster midwife at just four and twenty.

“Ida’s well; there’s nothing for you to fret over. I told her she ought to get out a bit, though, fresh air’s good for more than just sheets. She did say her feet are sore by the time the day’s done . . .” Jean let the line trail, to see if he might take it up on his own.

He did not. “Oh, aye. She’s on them all day, sure enough.”

Jean’s fingers itched to pinch the bridge of her nose, but she kept her tone kind.

“Perhaps you might give them a rub for her, of an evening? Ida’d appreciate it, I’m sure, and I think it would help.” Even if it didn’t, the gesture might go some little way toward improving domestic relations.

Richie Eisenor seemed to be thinking along similar lines, and maybe some besides, for he went pink and hemmed, mumbling something vaguely like an agreement down into his collar before declaring he’d best get back to it. He stabbed his shovel back into the muck of the pigpen, and Jean went out at the gate. As she set off along the shore road toward home, she rather wished she might find someone waiting to rub her own feet when she arrived there. She also wished—not for the first time—that instead of every family in town gifting her live chickens or smoked hams after a birthing, they might pool resources and buy her a sturdy pony.

About the Author

Rose Sutherland
Born and raised a voracious reader of anything she could get her hands on in rural Nova Scotia, Rose has an overactive imagination and once fell off the roof of her house trying to re-enact Anne of Green Gables. She’s continued to be entertainingly foolhardy since, graduating theatre school in NYC, apprenticing at a patisserie in France, and most recently, moonlighting as an usher and bartender in Toronto. She loves big cities, but often wishes she could live by the sea all the time. Her hobbies include yoga, dance, signing, searching out amazing coffee and croissants, and making very niche jokes about Victor Hugo on the internet. She is mildly obsessed with the idea of one day owning a large dog, several chickens, and maybe a goat. More by Rose Sutherland
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