- by Carol Standish
Ahab's Wife or, The Star Gazer (William Morrow and Company; 668pp; $28) is certainly an ambitious novel. Inspired by just three references to Ahab's wife in Moby Dick, never by name and described only as "a sweet resigned girl," Sena Jeter Naslund has created a female character of heroic proportions.
Kentucky born Una Spenser is still a young girl when she first meets the Ahab. In fact he performs her shipboard marriage to her deckhand lover. When she meets him again, several years later, on the streets of Nantucket, she sees him in a far different light and sparks fly. Una has done a lot of living in the meantime to have developed the capacity to love the mythic Ahab.
At the age of 12, Una's mother decides to send her to live with her sister in New England before Una is beaten into conversion to fundamentalist Christianity by her disturbed and violent father. They make the overland trip together from the wilds of Kentucky to an island off New Bedford where Aunt Bertha (a Unitarian) lives with her daughter and husband, the lighthouse keeper. Thus begins Una's long and adventurous journey toward Ahab and beyond.
On the island for four years, Una (her name means one) begins to develop a spiritual philosophy which involves becoming one with the universe she passionately observes from the island. Throughout the novel, she develops a belief system which she expresses in poetic passages in praise of the earth, sea, sky and stars as her cosmic home. Naslund makes a great effort to portray Una as an independent, intellectually questing, open individual. Our heroine is not simply the wife of Ahab. She is also The Star Gazer.
At 16, attracted by two literate young men who come to the island to install the new Fresnel lens in the lighthouse, Una runs away to sea on a whaling vessel (on which the young men have already shipped), disguised as a boy. Her disguise is successful to all but her two familiars. When the ship is rammed by a whale and sinks, Una and her potential suitors end up on the same open whale boat headed for Chile. In order to survive, the three succumb to cannibalism. This descent into desperation and temporary madness prepares Una (and the reader) to meet her match in Ahab. " 'Ye cause me to look away,' he muttered. 'Is it possible that ye a mere girl, have seen as deep as Ahab?' "
The love relationship between Una and Ahab has an intense charm. Naslund skillfully recreates the ferocious anti-hero's complex world view and simultaneously convinces the reader that Una can gentle him. However, their times together are mere interludes because Ahab is at sea for years at a time.
Una carries on as the wife of a wealthy and respected whaling captain. (It never occurred to me that Ahab was rich.) She decorates a mansion and hobnobs with all the New England literati of the day. She also journeys back to Kentucky to have a child in the company of her widowed mother and to confront her father's suicide. She befriends a runaway slave, and a dwarf bounty hunter and grows close to Mary Starbuck as the two women slowly realize that the Pequod has made its final voyage.
In the fiction trade, Naslund's book is called bildungsroman, that is, a novel that details the psychological development and moral education of the central character. The form is older than the Arthurian legends and until the 19th century, featured strictly male protagonists. Naslund freely admits that part of her inspiration for Ahab's Wife was the lack of strong female characters in Moby Dick. "If Melville had given a significant role to women, if he had seen women as having their own quests, I wouldn't have felt it necessary to write Ahab's Wife," she says, "I feel a certain mission to redeem the territory-not historical territory, but imaginative territory-for women… to say, 'Hey, we were there, we lived and died, too'-fictively."
Naslund's mission, however, gets in the way of Ahab's Wife becoming a candidate for THE Great American Novel, as critics are suggesting. Likable as Una is there is simply too much of Dr. Naslund, charming and challenging as she may be, in the fictional character. By identifying so closely with her protagonist "Whatever I could think, or whatever I could feel, so could she," declares Naslund, the author has tainted her early 19th century heroine with late 20th century political correctness. If Moby Dick's place at the pinnacle of the canon of American literature has not been challenged by this sprawling epic, the book is, nevertheless, in the words of a Melville biographer, "a spanking good read".
I had just finished reading Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex (The Lyons Press; 141pp; $12.95) when the news of Ahab's Wife began to filter by. I plunged into the novel with great enthusiasm, primed as I was by the original 1821 narrative of the ramming and sinking of the whaler Essex in the South Pacific-which is said to have inspired Melville to write Moby Dick.
The Lyon Press 1999 edition includes not only Owen Chase's version but those of two other survivors of the incident, the Captain of the Essex and Thomas Chapple, one of three crew members who fetched up on Henderson Island. The slight volume also includes a facsimile of Melville's notes on these first hand reports.
In an informative introduction Paul Lyons states that "two facts stood out in the story of the Essex. The ship had been stove, seemingly deliberately, by a whale, and in the aftermath the crew had resorted to cannibalism to survive. The first fact was the more remarkable, since in the history of whaling up until that time there had been no recorded instance of a whale maliciously attacking a ship…while cannibalism was not unprecedented." Naslund's accounts of Una and her friends in the whaleboat appear to be based directly on these reports. Imagine what Melville might have produced if he had been diverted by the subject of the "last horrible extremity."
There are as many versions of an event as there are participants. Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex is a vivid reminder of that fact. This fascinating documentary not only enhances the reader's enjoyment and understanding of both the classic and the contemporary fiction it has spawned, but it is page turner itself.
The Lyons Press has also re-published a classic volume on whaling, Men and Whales (542pp; $30) by Richard Ellis - what a wealth of information for the price. Ellis has spent most of his life researching and writing about marine life and is an acclaimed marine artist as well. Encyclopedic coverage, first of the specie and then of man's often rapacious interaction with it is accompanied by over 400 illustrations-photographs, antique renderings and the author's drawings. The work is both comprehensive and accessible to the general reader. The publisher suggests the book as a one stop resource for teachers and school libraries. I recommend it for anyone who has lately become enmeshed with Ahab or Ahab's Wife.