This is another in my Still On The Shelf series, where I tell you, book by blessed book, why I periodically run a dust rag across them, pull them off the shelf, and open them up to read.
A lifetime of reading has left me with a sizable number of books. Throughout the years I’ve donated them for tax deductions and traded them for credit by the carload. But for all the trimming and weeding my collection has undergone these past decades, the ones remaining on the shelves are there for a reason: they’ve withstood the tests of time. Although I’m more inclined to pick up my Kindle these days, there are still plenty of books on my shelves, and Ahab’s Wife is one of them.
Ahab’s Wife : or, The Star-Gazer : A Novel
by Sena Jeter Naslund
First Edition — William Morrow and Company, 1999
Paperback — HarperCollins Publishers, January 1, 2005
Find a place of honor in your home for this book — preferably alongside other novels like The Red Tent (see my review here) that round out fictional history by graciously expanding and retelling a beloved story from a feminine perspective. Simply put, this book is a treasure. From the first sentence, “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last,” to the final words (and all the words in between), this is a story that I wish would have gone on, and on, and on. The 668 pages in my signed, first edition copy aren’t enough.
Sena Jeter Naslund created this delicious tale from a brief passage in Moby-Dick, Herman Melville’s classic novel about the shadow side of human nature and the truth of Nature itself.
Naslund begins with a number of extracts from Moby-Dick, as well as quotes and passages from other sources — including Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe — that set the stage for the novel. All so you don’t have to read Moby-Dick before you start this book.
What we know about life is that in the end, Nature will triumph, always. It’s a daunting force. But what about us measly little humans? Have we no power? As helpless as we sometimes feel, we’re actually more than we think we are and have more opportunities than we realize.
In Ahab’s Wife, Naslund reveals all of this through the eyes and voice of Una Spenser. Una, mentioned briefly (and not by name) in Moby-Dick, is the wife of Captain Ahab.
Although Ahab was an important part of Una’s life, this novel is most definitely her story.
We’re with her in her childhood years living with her family in the woods of Kentucky.
We accompany her as an adolescent living with her aunt and uncle in an island lighthouse (take me there!).
We’re with her as she disguises herself as a boy and works on a whaling ship.
We’re there for her first marriage and her second (to Ahab).
We escort her as she travels through the loss of Ahab and acceptance of that loss.
We rejoice as she re-makes her life on Nantucket and enters into her third marriage (you’ll shriek with delight when you find out who that third husband is — and no, you won’t get a hint from me).
In short, Una is a strong, graceful woman and a powerful feminine model of survival and rebirth.
The story is anchored in history, adventure, romance, transcendentalism, and intuition.
Through these lenses, Una struggles with the moral issues inherent in religious tolerance, slavery, cannibalism, feminist concerns, philosophy, madness, and astronomy.
Naslund’s archetypal imagery is with me still and will be for some time, most likely, even though I first read the book more than 20 years ago.
I was enchanted with many elements in this book and was especially pleased with the description of the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral (for more on this, see my Still On The Shelf piece on Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Practice, by Lauren Artress).
But perhaps the segment that most tickled my fancy is Una’s literary interpretation of a sentence recited to her by a stranger in a forest:
I built a cottage for Susan and myself and made a gateway in the form of a Gothic Arch, by setting up a whale’s jaw bones.
Una’s two-page interpretation is the most brilliant — and exciting — two pages of literary analysis I’ve ever read. It nearly brought me to tears (okay, so I love this kind of stuff).
Finally, my comments on Ahab’s Wife wouldn’t be complete without mentioning these two auspicious aspects of the book: the writing style and the illustrations.
Naslund furthers the integrity and appeal of this beautiful book by writing in a style appropriate for the pre-civil war time setting, complete with a second title (The Star-Gazer), a frontispiece, an inscription, old-fashioned sentence construction (but still easy to read), and chapter titles (there is some of this in contemporary books, but not nearly enough for my taste).
In addition, a list of the illustrations (engravings) and numerous end-of-chapter engravings, all by Christopher Wormell, add yet another dimension of enchanting dreaminess to the experience of reading Ahab’s Wife. It’s a lovely and unforgettable experience to be in the world of this novel.
And that’s why my author-signed copy of Ahab’s Wife is Still On The Shelf.
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