Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund , or, The Book Club Goes Down The Cape
This dusty old book, was given to me many years ago by my mother, who loved it. I read it a long time ago because she told me to. Long ago so more than ten years ago. I just remembered it as a book I really wanted to discuss with other women. So, last time we chose books… Someone recommended it, I thought yes! We got the necessary votes that day and it made it onto the Book Club docket.
We decided to make an event out of this book. It is set in Nantucket… So, I got us as close to Sconset Nantucket, as I could. Brewster Cape Cod. Over the next few posts related to this book, I will be giving shout outs to all kinds of groups, people, and organizations. This is as good as any a moment, to thank my father, who offered us a pair of houses with ocean views to stay at while we immersed ourselves in this book. We are truly grateful, it was an amazing experience to be somewhere so relevant to our book exploring the general culture of the area and going to other relevant places to further immerse ourselves.
So coming soon to this section of the blog will be a post full of photos of our trip to The Captain Cobb House, in Brewster Cape Cod. This little museum is run by the historical society and is manned by volunteers. The artifacts of the era of time it preserves were donated by many wonderful and kind people and families who understand the value these things have to society as a whole. Next thank you which will be repeated goes to The Captain Cobb House, the Brewster Historical Society, the volunteers that keep the place running and open to the public, and to the people and families that donated sharing pieces of their family’s history so that all might benefit from it.
We also made a visit to one of our favorite places… The local bookstore, The Brewster Book Store. (Come on, we are book nerds, you think we skipped the local book store? Of course we did not!) The Brewster Book Store, opened when I was I do believe about 2 years old. My mom used to take me there as a child. I have loved this book store for four decades, due to how hard they try to help you find exactly what you are looking for. The staff is great. Really nice folks running this place. We had a great time visiting them. A little bird told me, they are working on getting some space in their store set up so that book clubs just like ours can have a place to meet. So, on behalf of all book clubs, I would like to thank them for the space to meet. On a personal note I want to thank them for being amazing, and on behalf of the book club…. I want to thank them for being open on that rainy day. it was such a joy to visit. Every time I walk into that store it feels a bit like coming home.
We walked the beach, the strand and plodded around on the flats for a while… We worked up an amazing appetite and headed to the The Marsh Side Restaurant. We ate really amazing food while looking out at the marsh until the sun went down and the darkness rose and blotted out our view. We wanted to thank The Marsh Side Restaurant for feeding us some truly incredible food and hosting us for some time while we ate, hung out, enjoyed the view, and laughed a lot. The service was fabulous. So to whoever it was who was our server, thank you as well.
Sunday, we went into Chatham, the most expensive town on the cape I do believe, though it is possible I am wrong. It is a really gorgeous town, quintessential Cape Cod, at it’s best. It is also home to the Coast Guard, which in I want to say in the 1950s made an incredible rescue during a dangerous storm that knocked out power including to the lighthouse. The people of Chatham, drove their cars to a certain spot, and they turned on the lights of their car, calling the coast guard rescue crew that was rescueing far more people than their boat should be able to hold in a very dangerous situation. Chatham, also has a fabulous strip of beautiful shops and galleries. The Coast Guard, has a lighthouse in Chatham that remains operational. Which was one reason we went. Lighthouses are hugely relevant to our book.
But I will discuss all of these things in more detail in some other posts, later. I just wanted to set the stage so far as this post goes.
Ahab’s Wife or, The Star-gazer, was written by Sena Jeter Naslund. it is meant to be a companion piece to Melville’s famous book Moby Dick. Captain Ahab, as the story goes in a nut shell, lost his leg to an evil whale named Moby Dick. He then spent the rest of his life searching for the white whale that was Moby Dick, and trying to kill him to avenge himself. This is a very long and difficult tale to read, as much of it is in what I call “quaker speak.” So the language and length can be tedious and difficult. A number of quotes were of great importance to Mizz Naslund, from a number of different books. But most important, was a quote she pulled from Moby Dick. It was Ahab, talking to first mate Starbuck, telling him of his wife whom he felt he had widowed just by wedding. Naslund, went back and asked herself, “who was this woman that would pledge her life in partnership to cannibal old Ahab?” She created in answer Una, the main character in this book. This book, is to tell the story of the women of Moby Dick, in particular the story of the wife of Captain Ahab, who was a whaling captain. He did in fact widow her when his fury for revenge ended in not just the loss of his leg but the loss of his life when his boat The Pequod, was stove by the most infamous white whale in human literature.
Una’s story is not told entirely chronologically. The beginning is about her most difficult moments in life. The major losses that made her who she was. It begins with her having a baby in Kentucky, which is where she was from. During her birth her mother goes to get the doctor and never comes back in the middle of the winter. A run away slave seeking shelter and freedom helps her through this difficult moment, Susan. They become like sisters for just a moment. In fact, this book is very much about the power of women’s relationships with other women rather than being so much about the marriage of Ahab and Una. I don’t want to give too much away… So I will move on… Una’s mother is strong and very interesting reading before most women were taught how. Her father, was a religious zealot who well, never mind I don’t want to spoil anything. Anyway, Una, was not naturally a believer. her zealot father couldn’t handle that. Her home became violent and her mother feared for her. So she took Una, to her sister in new Bedford, where the sister lived at an island lighthouse with her husband and little girl. Una, thrives on the island and learns and grows and develops and eventually makes friends with a pair of young men who deliver supplies by boat, Kit Sparrow, and Giles. Giles, is self educated and he is quite intelligent and learned. Kit, is a lot of fun, youthful, and friendly. Una, develops an interest in Giles and as she ages, her home becomes too small for her as happens to most people eventually. Giles and Kit, long to go out on a whaling boat, Una too, longs to experience the freedom. So when a scheduled trip to see her mother in Boston, doesn’t pan out, she decides to go have an adventure… Dressed as a boy, she signs onto a whaling ship as a cabin boy. The same whaling ship that both Giles and Kit, sign onto as sailors. Off they go into the Atlantic… Their ship meets with tragedy. The three friends find themselves doing things for survival they never dreamed that they could. When they are finally rescued, one throws himself from high up off the boat into the sea, another goes mad, and the third weds her first husband, a mad man, and has her first encounter with Captain Ahab, on her way back to the dry land of Nantucket.
The next section of the book sees her through to the end of this first marriage and into a happy second marriage. Una, makes a home on Nantucket. She builds community and makes friends of some of the most interesting people of this era, including Margaret Fuller, an early feminist who once said of women, “let them be sea captains-If they will!” Una, builds a happy life while she awaits her Ahab out on his first voyage whaling since their marriage. During this time, we return to the beginning of the book. She goes to Kentucky to have her first baby… Upon returning after her trip to Kentucky, eventually her husband returns she gets pregnant for the second time. While her husband is gone to sea again, she produces her next child. Upon her husband’s return he is missing his leg. Soon after he returns to the sea to avenge himself against the white whale or die trying. Una, forms new and deeper friendships with the locals including first mate Starbuck’s wife Mary, who lives out at Sconset. Una, falls in love with Sconset and makes her home there. She gets to know her neighbors, makes good investments with the help of her friend the judge. Una, raises her child, and keeps in touch with those of importance to her who are part of the family she has chosen for herself… Finally news of Ahab’s death comes. There was but one survivor of the Pequod, Ishmael, who rode to safety on a coffin. In Moby Dick, he is the one that tells the tragic tale that he watched unfold on Ahab’s ship. In Ahab’s Wife, he winds up a neighbor and a dear friend to Ahab’s widow and so very much more.
This is a story of a woman who went out to sea, and searched the depths of her own heart seeking her own fulfilment in a time when women did not get to do those things. Una, had an adventure’s heart and the soul of an artist, and the mind of an explorer. This is a once in a lifetime book that offers a most amazing apotheosis to all women.
We all loved the themes and ideas, and inspiration for this book. Everyone agreed it was incredibly well written. Some had trouble getting into it. They found the first 200 pages hard to get through due to the slow pace. Others, had some trouble with the quaker speak. I had trouble with the religious comparisons due to my lack of grasp of christianity and due to it’s foreigness to me. (I originate in a Budhist zen school, an international hippy commune of Buddhist hippies, Christianity, was not part of my up bringing.) So for me that was hard to follow and understand, but once I came to understand the concepts with the help of another member of the book club I found the comparisons of different Christian philosophies really quite interesting and I found that they enhanced the book. Most of us loved this book. For all of us it will always hold a special place in our heart.
The other thing about this book…. It was extremely well written. The research done for this book was extremely and extroardinarily comprehensive. It must have taken a decade or longer just for the research… I have so much admiration for the work ethic of Sena Jeter Naslund, given the research she clearly did. Then to write in that particular vernacular…. It takes a writer far superior to me to do that.
This is a huge book, it contains and touches on so very much, from unorthodox unacceptable relationships in that era, to slavery, to the tabooest things humans can conceive of…
The descriptions are just delicious. The history is incredible, the depth of this novel puts the Atlantic ocean to shame. Few people have the depth to write something like this. Very very very few. Which makes Naslund, that much more impressive. I got lost in the character and life of Una. We all did. We sank like stones right down into her story. Which is why, I was so excited to get to discuss this with a group of women who are gradually becoming my chosen family.