The voyage so far

As promised, here’s the first of what may be several updates on my tour of books set on water in honor of Herman Melville’s 200th birthday. Initially I had planned to make these reviews brief, but, well, you know … ideas.

The voyage has been easy running so far, starting with a couple of old favorites from Holling Clancy Holling (1900-1973), writer and illustrator of books that combine history, geography, infographics, full-color illustrations and story to fascinate any reader who isn’t thrown by details.

And to honor the author of the extremely detailed Moby Dick, what could be more appropriate?

Seabird (1948) takes us through 4 generations of a family of sea captains. The dynasty begins in 1832 (HCH provides a handy chronology at the end), when 14-year-old ship’s boy Ezra carves Seabird from walrus tusks, with coral eyes, amber beak and slate feet. 60 pages and more than a century later Ezra’s great-grandson Ken is a pilot who carries Seabird as mascot on every flight.

Along the way, in penciled sidebar illustrations, HCH informs us about whaling — the various species of whales, the gruesome business of “cutting in”, whaleboats and harpoons, try-works, oil lamps, even scrimshaw have sidebar moments (did you know the term for carving ivory is “scrimshandering”?). But not just whaling gets this treatment: masts, spars and rigging; the evolution of coral atoll; 49ers prospecting for gold in California; bridges; arctic wildlife. It’s a glorious read.

And then there’s Paddle-to-the-Sea, HCH’s “lessons” on the geography and economy of the Great Lakes. At the tail end of winter, a young man near Lake Nipigon in Canada carves a wooden “paddle person” and sets him atop a mound of snow; when the melt begins, Paddle-to-the-Sea will head down hill to a stream that takes him to a pond that empties into a small river — and so on and so on. Through the five Great Lakes, and despite two near disasters (a sawmill and a forest fire), Paddle-to-the-Sea eventually makes his way to the Atlantic, and not just by water. At one point he’s carried by dogsled, at others on board sailboats and freighters. People rescue him and then return him to the water. A copper plate on his base (for ballast) provides these people a place to record where he’s been found. His journey takes 4 years, and by its end, the young man who carved him is loading his canoe when he overhears news of his paddle-person’s successful trip. Fitting and satisfying.

Finally (for this post), I’ll include a bit about Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife: or, The Star-Gazer (recommended by Lizza Aiken, to whom I send grateful thanks). There is much to admire in what Naslund has done here, turning Melville’s massive tale of masculine fury on its head and shoving Ahab aside to a minor role. Famous people (Emerson, Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, Henry James) mix with Melville’s characters (Starbuck and Ishmael play important roles here), as well as others created to populate Una’s world — a mostly feminist, progressive, and enlightened cast that includes a gay judge, a gay artist, a dwarf, an escaped slave, Unitarians, Quakers, and Universalists, not to mention women baking pies, sewing quilts, knitting socks, watching for their seafaring husbands’ ships, and wielding ivory dildos (no joke — you can find these for sale online).

157 chapters. 667 pages. All crammed to the gills with Una’s story. Born to poverty (emotional as well as financial) in a one-room house on a patch of Kentucky bottom-land, at 12 she moves to a happier and more love-filled life at a New England lighthouse, where she meets the two men who set her on the next stage of her journey. Disguised as a boy, she follows them aboard a whaler, they’re shipwrecked (stove in by a black whale), rescued and eventually taken to Nantucket aboard the Pequod. Yes, that Pequod. Not exactly a “meet-cute”, but it’ll do.

Marriage, wealth, a child, and widow-hood follow, but Ahab plays only a minor role here — Una is the center of this story, and with Ahab mostly absent, we find out about life for those women waiting in port. For Una, it’s a life full of intellectual challenge and spiritual enlightenment — the opposite of what the whalers undergo as they chase ambergris and whale oil. Abolitionists, Transcendentalists, amateur astronomers, artists and armchair philosophers give Una plenty to think about, and her own moments alone, watching the sea and sky from her widow’s walk, help her piece out a happy acceptance of who she has become. At one moment she contemplates chopping off her right hand (guilty of cannibalism during that fateful shipwreck), but she says, no. There is plenty of good work left for that right hand to accomplish, as atonement for the horror on the sea.

Moby Dick (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Thus Una’s yearning to do good counters Ahab’s all-consuming desire for revenge. No doubt, the contrast of feminine and masculine is Naslund’s goal here. Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t about women vs men. Plenty of Naslund’s male characters show feminine behavior, and a few women (including Una herself) make masculine moves. Instead, Naslund seems to be analyzing models of how we respond to what happens to us. Ahab’s final letter to Una (found by Ishmael and much later recited to her) includes this passage:

Moby Dick! When I top thee, THEN, let my punishment begin, for I embody the great Lie: Hate, revenge, my wounds — they are greater than Love.

Yet Una, just a bit earlier, starting anew after losing her husband and then her house, rejects such negative thought:

Where we choose to be, where we choose to be — we have that power to determine our lives. We cannot reel time backward or forward, but we can take ourselves to the place that defines our being. The idea abides with me like faith. I will be happy to return to this place where domesticity marries the cosmos.

There were moments in this novel that made me cringe (the Dickensian coincidences, the obvious reaches for links to Moby Dick), but overall it’s a comforting (if lengthy) antidote to the harsh world Melville gave us. Often, Una, while watching the night sky, feels herself one with all creation — made of stars, our atoms circle eternally through the universe, and we are always with our loved ones.

Next up: a nostalgic cruise through England, taking in 3 books set on rivers.

About Lizzie Ross

in no particular order: author, teacher, cyclist, world traveler, single parent. oh, and i read. a lot.
This entry was posted in Adventure, Classic, Fan fiction, History, Travel and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to The voyage so far

  1. This is such a great post. With the other posts about the sea you are really making me feel a deficiency in my reading of this topic!

    Your thoughts on Ahab’s Wife draw me to this novel, too. I have heard of it, but since I haven’t read Moby Dick I didn’t think I would “get” it. But after August I won’t have that excuse 🙂

    • Lizzie Ross says:

      I’m glad you’re enjoying these, Laurie. As I was building my list for the seafaring theme, I couldn’t help noticing the large number of my books that fit. I must have been a sailor in a previous life.
      And, yes, I think Ahab’s Wife is more powerful in contrast to Moby Dick — but perhaps the same can be said in the other direction. However, Naslund’s novel is bound to be more enjoyable if you’re in on the joke, so give Melville a try first. I’m excited to find out how that goes for you.

  2. Sandra says:

    I’m definitely keen on Ahab’s Wife but can I face Moby Dick first? I fear not!

  3. Sandra, Brona of Brona’s Books is doing a Moby Dick readalong in August. This book has put me off since high school when I found a way not to read it, but I am ready to tackle it now. Maybe joining in will help nudge you, too?!!

    • Sandra says:

      Laurie, thank you so much for this 🙂 I’m always immediately tempted into something like this but I’m going to pass this time. It’s not the right time for me though I’ll enjoy following along with those of you who tackle it. And this has also encouraged me to explore more of Brona’s blog. If only I could persuade blogger to be nice!

  4. Lizza Aiken says:

    Wow, you are a dedicated and speedy reader – so glad I recommended Ahab’s Wife to you, as now you have reminded me I’d like to go back to it, and to Moby Dick of course an old favourite, and my grandfather Conrad Aiken’s most admired novel. He wrote ‘Without any question the greatest book to come out of New England…it is also the final and perfect finial to the Puritan’s desperate three-century long struggle with the problem of evil. Hunted from consciousness into the unconscious…’ and probably in the light of this, the chosen subject of his daughter Joan Aiken’s cheeky parody in Nightbirds on Nantucket! We have Quaker whaling ancestors, and I loved visiting Nantucket and the whaling museums and finding out more about this murky trade…also the society of the women left behind who ran the onshore society, along with as you say: ‘Abolitionists, Transcendentalists, amateur astronomers, artists and armchair philosophers’ – all in all a fascinating period of history and geography! Great piece, thank you!!

    • Lizzie Ross says:

      Thanks, Lizza, especially for the quote from your grandfather, and I definitely agree with his assessment of MD. I was interested to learn from a NYTimes review of Ahab’s Wife that Melville didn’t encourage women to read MD: “Don’t you buy it — don’t you read it when it does come out, because it is by no means a sort of book for you” (he wrote this to a woman he knew).
      During this year of reading around Melville, I hope to get up to Nantucket and commune there with the sea — but only after the summer people have gone.

      • Lizza Aiken says:

        Fascinating – and all the more interesting to get the women’s point of view in Ahab’s Wife. I envy you going to Nantucket, but yes the tourists change everything!

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