Call Me Una...
In her new novel, Ahab's Wife, Sena Jeter Naslund takes perhaps the least eligible bachelor in all of American literature and makes his marriage and pillow talk the very stuff of her book. It is a tall order she sets for herself, and one that she does not fail in filling. There's no mistaking Naslund's Ahab for Melville's Ahab, but her captain has his own, less imposing charms to offer. The real focus, of course, is on the title character, the wonderfully wrought Una Spenser, Ahab's wife, in whose labyrinthine adventures of the heart Ahab's hand is but a single lovely room.
Naslund is no stranger to the challenges of a novel based on the reimagining of a literary figure. Her novel Sherlock in Love begins with Watson's decision to write a biography of his old friend. After putting an advertisement in the paper for information about Sherlock Holmes, Watson discovers many details of the famous detective's life that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never had the time to mention. Ahab's Wife is a decidedly more ambitious project, for who is the archetypal forbidding patriarch in our literature but Ahab? And yet Naslund's attempt to show us another side of his life is wholly believable and deeply moving.
The novel begins with Una Spenser delivering Ahab's first child in a rural cabin in Kentucky, while the captain is at sea. The baby dies, as does Una's mother, who has gone to find a doctor. She explains her reasons for starting her narrative there: "I needed to tell those terrible things first, to pass through the Scylla and Charybdis early in my voyage of telling; otherwise, I feared I would turn back, be unable to complete my story, if those terrors loomed ahead." Safely past, she returns to her childhood and begins her story there. After a terrible fight with her Methodist zealot father, Una is sent to live with her aunt and uncle, who are lighthouse keepers near Rhode Island. It is there that Una first discovers her love of the sea. The love is not immediate. Upon first glance at the sea, Una says with contempt, "It's not wild enough." But when two handsome sailors, Giles Bonebright and Kit Sparrow, arrive from New Bedford, Una becomes enraptured, first with them, and then with the ocean they speak of so reverently.
By now Una's mother has become pregnant with her second child, and mother and daughter have plans to meet in New Bedford. Una waits for her mother at the Sea-Fancy Inn, which is across the street from the Spouter Inn, which readers will remember from Chapter Three of Moby-Dick. When Una's mother sends a letter explaining that she has miscarried and will return home to recuperate, Una is devastated. She cuts off her hair, buys an outfit of boy's clothing, and runs down to the wharf to find a ship that will take her as cabin boy. With her eyes well trained from days spent in the lighthouse, she proves her worth as a lookout aboard the Sussex. Her first time at the top of a mast occasions a Melvillian description: "Up and up! How to tell you about it? You have looked from the edge of a cliff? Climbed your own trees? Those efforts suggest a whiff of rigging-climbing -- as the volatile oil from an orange peel suggests the full flavor of its ecstatic juice." Naslund has drunk deep from the well of Melville's prose in preparation for this novel, and this shines though in her rich, extravagant language.
Here begins the heart of the novel -- Una's adventures at sea. It is here that she comes of age and here that she meets Captain Ahab. Many other characters from Melville's novel appear. Tashtego and Daggoo are found jumping from their unsuccessful whaler to join on to the Pequod as she pulls into port. We find Pip nearly burned to death in a house fire, then rejecting the Nantucket school for a chance to go to sea with Ahab. Even Ishmael himself appears, asserting that his name is David Pollack, but "Call me Ishmael."
Naslund uses these references to the events in Moby-Dick in interesting ways. When Ahab leaves Una behind as he sets out for another two-year voyage on the Pequod, we know that this is to be his final trip because Una sees Ishmael and Queequeg board the ship at the last minute. Using our knowledge of this outcome, Naslund turns Una's sighting of the two sailors into a dark portent. In this and many other ways, Naslund's novel successfully weaves itself into the margins of Melville's. The tremendous sacrifice made by whaling families -- of men who leave their families for two or three years at a time, return for no more than three or four months, and then set out again -- is rendered more vividly in Naslund's book. Never in Moby-Dick do we feel the numb outrage of those short, insufficient visits between voyages as we feel it in Ahab's Wife, after the Pequod departs, and Una walks homeward, reviewing all the things she hasn't told her husband.
Una's suffering is the blood of this wonderfully written novel. As she gropes and strides (and writes, for the novel is her memoir) her way through the numerous tragedies that befall her (Ahab's death is only the beginning), her determination to cherish her pockmarked life is as moving as it is vast. And for those who make it to the end of this 666-page masterpiece, the novel's conclusion holds a clever surprise.
Read an Excerpt
Or, The Star-gazer: A Novel
Chapter One Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last. Yet, looking up—into the clouds—I conjure him there: his gray-white hair; his gathered brow; and the zaggy mark; I saw it when lying with him by candlelight and, also, taking our bliss on the sunny moor among curly-cup gumweed and lamb's ear. I see a zaggy shadow in the rifting clouds. That mark started like lightning at Ahab's temple and ran not all the way to his heel (as some thought) but ended at Ahab's heart.
That pull of cloud—tapered and blunt at one end and frayed at the other—seems the cottony representation of his ivory leg. But I will not see him all dismembered and scattered in heaven's blue—that would be no kind, reconstructive vision; no, intact, lofty and sailing, though his shape is changeable. Yesterday, when I tilted my face to the sky, I imaged not the full figure but only his cloudy head, a portrait, glancing back at me over his shoulder.
What weather is in Ahab's face?
For me, now, as it ever was in life, at least when he was looking at me alone and had no other person in view, his visage is mild—with a brightness in it, even be it a wild, white, blown-about brightness. Now, as I look at those billowed clouds, I see the Pequod. I half-raise my hand to bid good-bye, as it was that last day from the east-most edge of Nantucket Island, when, with a wave and then a steadfast, longing look, till the sails were only a white dot, and then a blankness of ocean—then—a glitter— I wished his ship and him Godspeed.
Nantucket! The home where first I found my body, my feetnot so much being pulled into this sandy beach as seeking downward, toes better than roots; then, my mind, built not to chart this blue swell of heaving ocean, but the night sky, where the stars themselves, I do believe, heave and float and spin in fiery passions of their own; Nantucket!—home, finally, of my soul, found on a platform eight-by-eight, the wooden widow's walk perched like a pulpit atop my house. These three gears of myself—body, mind, and soul—mesh here on this small island—Nantucket! Then, why, when I look into the mild, day sky, do the clouds scramble, like letters in the alphabet, and spell not Nantucket, but that first home, Kentucky? And those clouds that did bulge with the image of Ahab show me the map of that state, flat across the bottom and all billowed at the top? I did not consult Ahab about my decision to spend my pregnancy in a rough Kentucky cabin with my mother, instead of staying in the gracious home of a captain's wife on Nantucket. But I wrote him, of course, and sent the letter after him on the ship called the Dove, so he could imagine me aright. That time spent with my mother outdoors in the sweet summer and golden Kentucky autumn was augmented by our indoor companionship of sewing baby smocks and cooking and reading again those great works of literature my mother had brought with her to the wilderness, green-bound books I had read as a child or she had read to me.
Sometimes my mother and I stood and looked at our faces together in the oval mirror she had brought with her from the East. Along with her library chest of books, the mirror with its many-stepped molding distinguished our frontier cabin from others. Thus, elegantly framed, my mother and I made a double portrait of ourselves for memory, by looking in the mirror.
When in early December the labor began but tried in vain to progress, my mother went from our cabin, driving the old mare in the black buggy through a six-inch crust of snow, for the doctor. In my travail, I scarcely noticed her leaving. When my mother did not come home and did not come home, and the pains were near unbearable and the chill was creeping across the cabin floor and into my feet as I paced, I grasped the feather bed from my bunk and flung it atop her bed. In desperation, between spasms, I gathered all the gaudy quilts in the house, and then leaving the latchstring out so that I would not have to venture from my nest when she returned, I took to my childbirth bed. There, softness of two mattresses comforted me from beneath and warmth of myriad quilts, a cacophony of colors, warmed me from above, but still I worked my feet and legs and twisted my back.
Despite the heat of my labor, I could feel my nose turning to ice, long and sharp as a church steeple all glazed with frost. Parsnip! I thought of; frozen and funny—a vegetable on my face! I chortled and then prayed, wondering if prayer and laughter gurgled up, sometime, from the same spring. Let nose be parsnip, parsnip be steeple, steeple be nose-whatever that protuberance, it is frozen to the very cartilage. Warm it! Save me, gods and saints! Wild and crazed by pain, my thoughts leaped about in antic dance, circling one picture after another. Nose! Steeple! Parsnip! My desperate, laughing prayer from within that quilted hump below its parsnip was only that I should be delivered and nothing at all for the welfare of the rest of the world. I wanted to wait for my mother's return and I was afraid because I had little idea of how to catch the baby. So even as I prayed, I prayed against myself, that time would not pass nor take me any closer to the port of motherhood. I thought of Ahab, as if his ship were wallowing, going neither forward nor drifting back but immobile in a confused sea.
Copyright © 1999 Sena Jeter Naslund Ahab's Wife
Or, The Star-gazer: A Novel. Copyright © by Sena Naslund. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.