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.
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.