The Sea Captain's Wife

( 39 )


A gripping novel of love and adventure on the high seas that introduces an unforgettable young heroine.

Growing up on the Bay of Fundy in the 1860s, Azuba Galloway is determined to escape the confines of her town and live at sea. When she captures the heart of Captain Nathaniel Bradstock, she is sure her dreams are about to be realized, only to have pregnancy intervene. But when Azuba becomes embroiled in a scandal, Nathaniel must bring his ...

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The Sea Captain's Wife

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A gripping novel of love and adventure on the high seas that introduces an unforgettable young heroine.

Growing up on the Bay of Fundy in the 1860s, Azuba Galloway is determined to escape the confines of her town and live at sea. When she captures the heart of Captain Nathaniel Bradstock, she is sure her dreams are about to be realized, only to have pregnancy intervene. But when Azuba becomes embroiled in a scandal, Nathaniel must bring his young family abroad to save his reputation. Azuba gets her wish, but at what price?

Alone in a male world, and juggling the splendor of foreign ports with the terror of the open seas, Azuba must fight to keep her family together. Blending the high-tension drama of missed chances and unexpected twists of the sort that made A Reliable Wife a bestseller with the pluck and spirit of a heroine in the vein of Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Sea Captain's Wife will captivate readers and critics alike.

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Editorial Reviews

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A young mother yearns to sail away to freedom from her provincial Canadian seaport village.


That her small Canadian seaport town was a place of departure did not go unnoticed by Azuba Galloway when she was growing up. From her earliest days of childhood, her yearning for escape had been an essential part of her. With every fiber of her being, she knew that one day she would board a ship and sail away. Years later, now married to Captain Nathaniel Bradstock and with a small child, she is more determined than ever to escape the narrowing confines of her village and its provincial residents to pursue her dreams of a life at sea with her family. But matters move more quickly and less fortuitously than she intended when what might have been a small misjudgment quickly becomes a scandal. Angry and humiliated, her husband is forced, for the sake of his reputation, to take his young family on board. While the circumstances are regrettable, Azuba has achieved her desire — she and her daughter are leaving on The Traveller, despite her husband's anger, the sadness of her family, worry about her daughter's safety, and her own growing fears about the dangers of a life at sea. The sole woman in an exclusively male world, she knows she must struggle to keep her family together and win back her husband's respect. None of this, however, can diminish her exhilarating sense of relief in her newfound freedom. Vivid, thrilling, with breathtaking range and breadth, The Sea Captain's Wife is filled with drama, danger, and the relentless determination of a singularly memorable and captivating heroine.

Publishers Weekly
Powning's 19th-century tale of a young woman desperate to live at sea with her captain husband is a grim rather than swooning romance. When Azuba married Nathaniel, she thought that as husband and wife they would exploring the world together on his boat, Traveller. But when Carrie is born, Nathaniel insists Azuba stay safely ashore at home in Whelan's Cove, New Brunswick, Canada, to raise their daughter. During Nathaniel's long absences, Azuba befriends Rev. Simon Walton, and their companionship sparks rumors of an affair that even reach Nathaniel, who returns to Whelan's Cove in a jealous rage. But Azuba persuades him to finally bring her and Carrie aboard ship, turning a long-held dream into bittersweet reality. Powning deftly details life at sea, but the incidents she unfolds are unerringly bleak, making the reader feel adrift in the doldrums with no way out, and not until the end does happiness swell in Azuba's direction. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Since she was a child watching ships set sail from the Bay of Fundy, Azuba has longed for life onboard a ship. Her marriage to Capt. Nathaniel Bradstock appears to fulfill that dream, until her new husband breaks his promise to take her with him and leaves her "safe" at home. But when Azuba's friendship with the new vicar causes a scandal, Nathaniel brings his family along. Life at sea with a distant husband is not quite what Azuba had envisioned, but she and daughter Carrie quickly adapt to their exciting, sometimes difficult, and always dangerous new life. Powning's (The Hatbox Letters) latest work is an absorbing novel with evocative descriptions of life at sea in the 1860s. Readers may be left wishing for a bit more character development, as any sense of what makes Nathaniel tick is lost between storms, near starvation, attempted mutiny, pirates, and pregnancy. We see why Azuba loves life at sea but not why she loves her uncommunicative husband. VERDICT This is a compelling historical novel with a strong female protagonist and an exciting plot. Sure to appeal to fans of women's historical fiction. [Five-city author tour.]—Elizabeth Mellett, Brookline P.L., MA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780452296954
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/22/2011
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 828,688
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Beth Powning's debut novel The Hatbox Letters was a national bestseller in Canada and longlisted for IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her fiction has been published in a range of literary digests, and she is the author as well of the critically acclaimed nonfiction titles Home: Chronicle of a North Country Life and Shadow Child: an Apprenticeship in Love and Loss. She lives on a 300-acre farm near Sussex, New Brunswick on the Bay of Fundy with her husband, the sculptor Peter Powning.

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Read an Excerpt

1. Noah’s Ark
It was the fifth year of her marriage, when her child, Carrie, was four years old. The bleeding began in the privy. Azuba wiped herself with a square of newspaper and found a red gout. She ripped newsprint from the nail. More blood came, thick, flecked with black strands. She mopped, mopped. She stood, bent with pain, settled her hoops, petticoat and skirt.
Wind snatched the door from her hand. She left it unhooked, gathered her cloak across her breast. The house loomed against a grey sky, the path a pale string in the headland grass.
Blood surged, trickled down her legs.
She began to run, one arm clasping her belly.
“Hush, now, could’ve been worse,” the midwife said. “You were only four months.”
She set a tin basin on the floor by Azuba’s bed, stooped and gathered the rags. “Baby’s gone, but there’ll be more bleeding. Stay still.”
Azuba lay flat on her back listening to the midwife’s steps going down the stairs. Mother was in the kitchen, feeding Carrie her supper. Soon the whole town would know.
Azuba Bradstock lost a child, people would murmur. Years before she’ll have another chance. The next time she went into the village, women would lower their voices, clasp her wrist, touch her shoulder. Such a pity.
She rolled her head sideways to gaze at the candle flame.
Nathaniel. Oh, Nathaniel, my beloved.
She pictured her husband reading the letter she had recently sent. Perhaps he’d been in Cape Town, where he’d planned to stop for provisions. There he sits, she thought, at the rolltop desk in Traveller’s saloon, holding the letter over a mess of business papers. She pictured his fingers smoothing his moustache, wide mouth bent downward, studying her words. His eyes lighten, he smiles. He reads the letter again. Then he folds it, tucks it into its envelope. Presses it to his heart.
February 6, 1861
Whelan’s Cove, New Brunswick
Dear Nathaniel,
I am with child. Carrie is excited to think she will have a brother or a sister. Oh my darling, if only you could be home for this child’s birth.
Nathaniel had left six months after their wedding, and had been at sea when Carrie was born. Once he received news that he had become a father, he’d written to say that he’d be home as soon as possible. One thing, though, had led to another: a cargo of coal to Bombay; a long delay in port; a consignment across the Pacific. His letters became increasingly frustrated. Carrie had been a sturdy little girl of almost three when he’d finally arrived home.
Azuba thought of the tiny nightgown in her workbox. It was a smocked nainsook, embroidered with a red rose, its stem unfinished. Her needle, piercing the fabric. Carrie’s finger, tracing it.
“May I name the baby, Mama?”
The candle flame licked the air, blue at its base.
Azuba watched it through tears. She felt the heartbreak of motherhood— sorrow, now, not only for herself and Nathaniel, but for Carrie.
Ah, the day he left. He had been home for a one-year furlough and had left again just after Christmas. He’d carved Carrie a Noah’s ark with all the animals and, before leaving, had clasped her to his chest, gruff voice in her hair and a rare tear glistening in his eye.
“I’ll be home soon,” he’d said to her. “Don’t worry.”
There Carrie had stood, waving to her father going out to his ship in a rowboat. Returning home in the carriage, she’d knelt to look back down the bay, too stunned to cry. And then, when they returned to the house, she had climbed onto his chair and made herself into a ball, pressing her face to the brocade, refusing to speak, eat or be comforted. For days afterward she had stood at the bow window, staring out over the headland pasture, asking for Papa. Expecting to see his sails, coming home.
And that night of his leave-taking. How I took his coat from the closet. She’d sat on the bed with her face buried in its black wool, breathing its smell of tobacco and cold air. And realized that her love for him had no expression now other than in words— scrawled or read.
Now she cried herself to exhaustion and lay staring at the ceiling. She longed to tell Nathaniel. Her shock, stumbling over the field. Her hired man, Slason, hurrying to the barn. How she’d waited, moaning, while the carriage went for her mother and the midwife. She longed to be held in his arms, to feel his hand on her forehead, smoothing, consoling. To feel the bitter comfort of shared loss.
Despair, she thought, was the inability to imagine. She pictured the nightgown she had been embroidering. The names she had thought to bestow on the new child.
I have no reason to despair.
The bedroom had two bow windows overlooking the Bay of Fundy with its spruce-cragged cliffs. At the age of nineteen, she had married Nathaniel Bradstock, who at twenty-eight was a seasoned captain. Her father had given them the house as a wedding gift, hiding it beneath a scaffolding strung with sails as it was being built. A big house meant to be filled with dogs, toys, music, guests, family. He had set the house high on a headland, fit for a sea captain’s wife, where Azuba could look down at Whelan’s Cove with its shipyards, hulls looming higher than the rooftops, gulls circling in clouds of sawdust; its harbour, crowded with fishing boats, coastal schooners, sloops— and farther out, in the deeper water, square-rigged merchant ships with their forest of masts and rigging. One of which might, on occasion, be Nathaniel’s Traveller.
She could look down at the farmstead of her childhood, set within fields of oats and buckwheat, and the ribbon of shore road. She could see the salt marsh where, as a child, she had run with her older brothers, Benjamin and William, and the dunes where compass grass scratched half-moons in the sand. She could see the beach where they’d chased stiltlegged sandpipers, jumped the ropes of froth, watched ships beating up the bay with billowed, patched sails.
She pictured herself as a child— dark-haired, impetuous, with black eyes, different from her fair-skinned cousins— and felt pity for her hope. Her innocence.
I thought I would sail away on one of those ships. Married to a sea captain. I’d be Mrs. Shaw, with her red-headed parrot.
Her days, now: as they would unfold tomorrow, and next week, and next month. She saw herself working with her hired girl, Hannah— planting, weeding, scrubbing— her own hair pinned back, sleeves rolled, scissors and knives jingling in the deep pockets of her wash dress. How she made her choice to work from the wearisomeness of its alternative: tea parties, visits, carriage rides. She pictured Slason, with his crooked leg and loose-lipped mouth. He tended the pigs, the horse, the cow. His voice, submissive. What do you need, Mrs. Bradstock? And the violent headland winds, different from the winds of her childhood. Clothes on the line, twisted into knots. Doors, pulled from her hand. Often, she paused on the porch and looked out at the blue line of Nova Scotia and the silver gleam in the southwest where the bay widened to the Gulf of Maine: the sea spread before her, thundered in her ears; and sometimes she loathed it, since Nathaniel was at its mercy. At other times, she closed her eyes, tossed back her bonnet and breathed deep of the world’s size.
Azuba drew up her knees, rocking from the ache in her womb, thinking of Carrie.
No brother. No sister.
The May wind blew onshore and there was a spring tide. Carrie was at her granny’s for the day.
Azuba sat in an armless chair, a Paisley shawl concealing the opening at the back of her dress; she had left her corset loosely knotted. She wore a brown dress with purple piping. Her black hair was unwashed, parted in the middle, caught up in a net at her neck. Beneath her eyes were blue shadows. After four days, she still felt a low cramp in her womb.
The new Anglican minister, Reverend Walton, had come to visit. He had heard she was unwell, but would not speak of the reason. He sat upright, his ankles crossed and his arms laid precisely along the chair’s carved arms. He was a slight, mild man, easily moulded by the parish women.
She and Nathaniel had paid a call at the parsonage when he had first arrived. He’d shown them his studio, a large room at the back of the house with an easel, drawing books and a table beneath a window littered with treasures he’d collected along the shore— feathers, shells, skulls.
Even when he’s old, she thought, he’ll still look eager, innocent.
Sunlight streamed through the windows, lit the carpet-draped table with its oil lamp and leather books; a japanned china cabinet; a pump organ.
“It’s a beautiful house, Mrs. Bradstock,” he said.
His composure was disarming and she felt an impulse to tell him her real feelings about the house. How, when her father had told her he would build it, she’d exclaimed, “No, no, we won’t need . . .” And then had paused. Mother had looked up from her sewing, shocked, her face revealing all she hoped for in a married daughter: help, companionship, grandchildren. Father’s smile paled. “What did you say, Azuba?” His voice was awry, like Mother’s face, its tone incredulous. He’d laid down his pen slowly, his eyes had narrowed, and she had been caught by his prescient gaze. She saw that her intention to go to sea with her captain husband was so far from her parents’ expectations that her words were like a foreign language. And she had not dared refuse the house, or announce her plan. A house, she’d thought. Only a house. “I meant that you needn’t do so much for me,” she’d amended. “Thank you, Father. We would be grateful for such a gift.”
Or how, on the day of their wedding, in the midst of an October gale, she and Nathaniel and most of the villagers had gone up the headland road in horse-drawn carriages. Father had lifted his arm, men had slashed the ropes, and the sails had fallen from the scaffolding, revealing a large white house that would forever be known as “the sail house.” It had gingerbread shingles, a porch and steep gables. In their enthusiasm, the men had cut the ropes tethering the sails and the canvas had risen like monstrous, demented gulls, flapping towards the horses. Drivers had stood, shouting, hauling on reins. Nathaniel had jumped from the carriage, seized their horse by the bridle, growling “Whoa! Whoa!” even as he stared up at the newly minted house with a complex expression—surprise, affront and then a dawning comprehension.
At that moment, she realized later, Nathaniel had glimpsed the implications of taking her to sea: the danger to her, the anguish of those left behind. Perhaps when the sails fell from the house, Nathaniel’s mind had shifted like ballast throwing a ship off true. A place he could safely leave me. She wondered if her father might have hoped for such an outcome.
“My father built it as a wedding gift, as you know.”
Reverend Walton leaned forward, picked a dead leaf from his pants. “It must be a comfort to you to have such a house.”
He was studying the leaf, and she saw that he was unsure of his boundaries, as a minister and as a man.
She pressed her folded hands to the ache in her belly. She felt an upwelling of longing to be sharing the loss of the baby with Nathaniel, and it was borne upon her that she must learn to fold waiting into living, like a kind of stillness within motion.
It is the nearness, she thought, of his last visit. Only four months since he’d left. And then this loss. It made his absence more unbearable. And she wondered if the pain of parting, over the years, would increase rather than diminish.
She must begin again her work of maintaining love. Keeping Nathaniel alive in her memory, and now in Carrie’s. Reminding the child how he carved the tiny animals, one eye squinted, critical; or knelt on the rug with his muscled thighs, being a horse for Carrie. His lovely baritone voice singing Irish ballads. And her own, private memories: silky flesh, his hands cradling her face, the way he lifted her shawl from the floor and tucked it around her. And to compose in her mind an imagined life that dexterously shrunk the years he was away and expanded the time he was home.
She began speaking nervously, as if confessing. “You know, Reverend Walton, I married for love. I wanted to be with my husband. I thought that I would go to sea with him. I’ve always wanted to sail; I still do. I’ve always wanted to travel, to see the world.” She gestured at the window.
It came in a rush.
“I thought we would be a seafaring family, like so many others. Did you know that Captain Shaw delivered all three of their children at sea? They had a pet billy goat on board. Captain Shaw made a little cart for it. The children had a full-rigged model ship that they towed in the wake of their ship. Mrs. Shaw hung her wash in the rigging. She saw Buckingham Palace. The children rode on elephants.”
Reverend Walton tightened his arms to his sides as she spoke. His eyes slid to the clawed feet of the organ stool. He brushed hair from his forehead, as one would a fly.
“Well,” he said, after a silence. “Could you not? Go with him?”
“He changed his mind.”
When Nathaniel had first bent his eyes on her, she had felt a heat in her chest, fear mixed with elation. She had felt light as the wind, and as formless. Oh, and I asked him, Will I come with you, on Traveller? Yes, he said. He took me by the elbows and studied my resolve. Yes, he said, I could not bear to leave you.
Reverend Walton appeared agitated by her tone. His eyes flew to the window and remained there. “It would be a life filled with peril,” he ventured. “For you and the children.”
“I’m sorry,” Azuba said. “I shouldn’t . . . I’m not myself.”
The minister rose. “Mrs. Bradstock, please.” He stepped forward, took her hand, held it for an instant before shaking it. “I’ve tired you. Please come visit the parsonage. Bring your daughter. I’ll show her my collection.”
After he had seen himself out, Azuba rose and sought her sewing box. She sat on the horsehair sofa, lifted out a bundle of Nathaniel’s letters tied with blue satin ribbon.
My dearest Azuba,
I am at lat. 35 11,’ long. W. 126, in the vicinity of Pitcairn Island. We are in the S.E. trades and the weather has been beautiful.
She skimmed through the letters, seeking words.
Love. Sweet. My dear wife. Home, soon. Our wedding. Wish that I. Forever.
Azuba dropped the letter into the sewing box and replaced the lid. It was her secret, what she had told Reverend Walton. Everyone assumed her contentment. There was not a girl in the village who would not have married Nathaniel Bradstock. Sea captains’ wives were envied, whether they sailed with their husbands or not. Nathaniel was the youngest of three boys, all sea captains. When he was twelve years old, he had served as cabin boy on his oldest brother’s ship; at fourteen, he was sent away to the academy in Sackville. And was a second mate at nineteen. The Bradstock brothers, Nathaniel included, were renowned for their hard-driven voyages, extravagant items brought or shipped home, adventures spiced with rumours of ruthlessness. Their parents gave balls and dinners to celebrate their infrequent visits.
Azuba thought of her plaid silk wedding dress, hanging in her bedroom closet. Green and purple, with a shimmer of gold thread.
The following week, Azuba and Carrie drove to visit Azuba’s grandmother, Grammy Cooper. Slason offered to drive, but Azuba refused. She loved to collect the mare’s energy, tightening the reins, snapping the whip. And it was only five miles, through the village, up along the needle-softened road.
Far below, Whelan’s Cove was like a toy village, and off to the west, Grand Manan spliced the silver sea.
“I loved to come here when I was little,” Azuba said. Carrie sat straight-backed with excitement. She held her doll, Jojo, face-forward to see the view.
They turned down the lane. Budding hardwoods held the light tenderly. Half-wild cats slithered away beneath the barn. Grammy was stumping lopsided towards the house. She clutched a bunch of parsnips by their tops.
“Come along in,” she called. She waved her cane.
Azuba unhitched the mare, led her to the barn. Carrie squatted by the sill making chirping noises for the cats.
They crossed the hen-scratched earth. The poplar leaves funnelled the wind with a soft roar. They went up the wooden steps, holding their skirts.
The house was placid, vital: knitting needles spiked a sweater; carded wool was piled by the spinning wheel. Geraniums lined the windowsills. By the stove was a pail, a bucket of potatoes and a narrow, high-sided cradle.
Carrie took her doll to the cradle. It had been Grammy’s as an infant and had kept her warm during that first terrible winter in Saint John. Carrie had heard her greatgrandmother’s story, the words incantatory as prayer. Log house caulked with seaweed. The autumn fleet. Loyalists. Grammy, child of refugees.
Grammy made tea while Azuba poured cold water from a pitcher into a bowl, washed the parsnips. They sat at the table to chop them. Grammy’s fingers were twisted, the knuckles swollen. She held her knife by tucking it in her palm. It flashed in the sunlight, cut as fast as Azuba’s.
“Lost a baby. Probably something wrong with it, Azuba. Nature knows. Think it’s something you did?”
Azuba looked into the beloved face with its splotchy brown marks. Skin fanned beneath Grammy’s chin in parchment folds; her eyes were tucked deep beneath loops of flesh.
“Every woman thinks the same, Azuba. I began bleeding once after I’d lugged a bushel of potatoes.”
“Why—” began Carrie.
Grammy raised a finger at her. “Take these to the hens.” She swept the peelings into a bowl.
Carrie went out to the sunshine and the cats. They saw her wandering towards the barn, strewing parsnip skin. The wind lifted her dress, revealed her tiny boots.
“No. I don’t think it’s something I did,” Azuba said. “I think it’s the way I was feeling.”
Grammy darted a look, but said nothing, only pursed her lips with their white waxy patches.
“Maybe wanting the baby so that Nathaniel would hurry back home.” She laid the white, rubbery parsnips in a row and aligned the ends. “When he was home, it was as if it was my house, or Father’s house. Not his. I could feel it. He was only a visitor. And I will never tell Father, but I have not yet reconciled myself to my life. I don’t live to fill my rooms with silver tea sets and satin cushions, delivered to me by my husband from Paris or Bombay.” She lowered her voice, spoke as if to herself. “I want to go to those places. With him.”
Grammy put down her knife. “He’s a good man, Nathaniel.” She spoke firmly, as if she had once doubted. “Some say he’s too hard, or too blunt, or too used to command. But I’ve watched him look at you, Azuba. No one else except Carrie gets that look from Captain Bradstock. Do you think you made a bad choice?”
“No. Never.”
“Still. You’re not like those peacocks in their pretty pens.”
They both watched Carrie. She was skirting the rooster, whose yellow and black tail feathers fluttered.
“I could see you on that ship of his. Do him good.”
Azuba remembered her small, bright-faced grandfather and how Grammy had broken into a keening at his burial, her cries unfurling into the sky. She’d been urged to come down off the mountain when he died, but had refused. She said she would live her life the way she wanted.
After they had eaten dinner and washed the dishes, Carrie and Azuba said their goodbyes. There were deep, oval holes in the soil where hens had scratched out dust baths. Carrie held up Jojo. Nathaniel had carved the doll’s face, arms and legs. He had painted its cheeks red, given it a wispy smile. Azuba had stuffed the body with dried peas.
Grammy took the doll in her hand. “Father made that for you?”
“Papa makes my toys,” Carrie said. She spoke solemnly and as if her Papa were not far away, nor would be long in returning.
Grammy kissed the doll’s head. Carrie hugged her great-grandmother and Grammy put one arm around the child. She set her cane, looked deep-eyed at Azuba.
“Never let men frighten you, Azuba. They’re boys at heart. Just boys.”
May 16, 1861
The Sail House
Whelan’s Cove, New Brunswick
Dear Nathaniel,
I have sad news for you, my dear. I am no longer with child. There was no fall or apparent cause. The baby slipped away, and I am left well but sorrowing. Carrie is heartbroken, for she had been hoping for a little brother, and had begun choosing names.
I am well. I am back at work with Hannah and Slason. I know you will think I should not be, but it is my wish to be outside and vigorous, and so we have begun breaking up the soil with the mare for a new garden.
Nathaniel, I missed you so during this misfortune. My heart ached for you. If I could have made a miracle, I would have lifted you from the seas and set you here in your chair. I hope you can find a way to make a shorter voyage, although I know it is not always in your control. This past year that you were home, although we had not agreed upon our future, was so blessed, not least the joy of seeing you and Carrie together. She misses you terribly and plays with her ark every night as she promised you she would.
I know that after you changed your mind about my coming with you, we had many discussions. I know that you tire of hearing my views on this, and hesitate to write them down, but I must say that I continue to believe Carrie and I would not be such a burden as you think. If you cannot find time to come home, please know that I am still ready to pack up and join you so that we may be a family. I am not afraid, as you know. No storm seems as bad as having to live day after day with no husband, and no knowledge of when he might return.
I am sorry; perhaps I should not write this letter, but these are my feelings at the moment, and were you here I would be telling them to you.
I love you, always. I miss you. I pray for your safety.
“Oh, Mr. Marr has ridden an elephant, too.” Crumbs blew from Mrs. Marr’s lips. She was tiny. She patted her mouth with a linen napkin. “He assured me he was not a bit frightened.”
Azuba and Carrie had been invited to tea at the home of Mrs. Black. Mrs. Holder and Mrs. Marr were present. All were sea captains’ wives.
Their skirts rustled, releasing the scent of lavender. They sat forward on their chairs to accommodate their bustles. Carrie’s feet did not touch the floor. She sat with a biscuit forgotten in her hand, staring at the cut glass chandelier, the fringed lamps, the stuffed pheasant, the clocks, mirrors and waxed fruit.
This house, Azuba thought, holding a teacup and saucer, was as large as hers, similarly ornamented with gables and turrets, set back from the main street on a slope overlooking the harbour. But it was so stuffed with possessions that its rooms seemed smaller, darker. Nor could she think of herself as similar to the other women. They were as overly decorated as the room. They wore rings on every finger, gold chains around their necks, dangling jet earrings, lace collars, ribbons, beads. They swept their hands in negligent arcs and talked loudly, without reflection.
Mrs. Black resumed her husband’s latest letter, lifting her chin to read from the very top of the paper. Fine silver chains looped from her pince-nez.
The cook baked tarts and gingerbread. I have a very attentive steward who brought me these with my tea. I passed the morning pleasantly, scarcely a ruffle on the ocean or a cloud to be seen. Today some handsome birds have been flying under our lee. I spied a brigantine standing to the westward but could not make her out . . .
Mrs. Black swept the pages with an ostentatious rustle.
Later in the day came a heavy gale from the northwest, attended with squalls of rain. I called the watch, but before we could get all sail in, the fore and maintop split . . .
Azuba leaned forward. She pictured the black clouds, the rain-stippled waves.
“Oh, bother that part. Let me find something interesting.”
“Oh!” Azuba said.
Mrs. Black lowered the paper. “What, Mrs. Bradstock?”
“No, I’m sorry. I just wondered what happened.”
“Well . . .” She raised the pages, scanned them. “He doesn’t say much more. They limped along, I suppose.”
Mrs. Marr set down her cup and saucer. She frowned when she spoke, causing a wedge-shaped furrow on her brow. “I skip those parts too. They will go on about the storms.”
“I like to read about the storms,” said Azuba. She glanced at Carrie. “Although I always wonder what he’s feeling, and he never says.”
“Feeling!” Mrs. Marr’s narrowed eyes slid sideways to Mrs. Holder, a stern-faced woman from Saint John. Mrs. Holder’s expression held a permanent state of affront, her mouth pinched down at the corners. The two women exchanged a glance. “Don’t expect to hear about feelings, my dear.”
“Not a shred of fear in their bodies,” said Mrs. Black, setting down the letter. “Annie?”
An Irish girl dressed in a starched cap and apron circled the room with the teapot and a plate of biscuits.
“It’s not only his feelings,” Azuba said, taking a biscuit from the maid. She wanted, suddenly, to needle these women. “It’s the storms. He dismisses them in a word or two. ‘Storm last night.’ But I find them exciting. I always want to know what happened. Whether the sails shredded, or if they had to heave to.”
There was a silence. The room was overheated, the windows closed against the spring air.
“What really happens, we don’t care to know,” said Mrs. Marr. She glanced at Carrie. “It’s best not.”
Azuba turned to stare at the bright little woman. “I wouldn’t be afraid to know.”
“Wouldn’t you? I suppose you would like to sail with your husband?”
Azuba saw that Mrs. Black’s mouth was opening, a change of subject in her eyes.
“Yes,” she answered, quickly. “I wouldn’t mind. I’d love to see London, Paris. Antwerp.”
The women laughed. They made clucking sounds, glanced at Carrie, who had not yet finished the biscuit she held in her hand and whose dress, Azuba noticed, was covered in crumbs.
“Have you met any of those women who sail with their husbands?” Mrs. Marr hissed. “Have you seen their skin? Observed their manners? And think, Mrs. Bradstock, of what we read in the papers.” The wedge on her brow raised, hardened.
The voyages that went dreadfully wrong, Azuba thought. Fire at sea, women put off in lifeboats, captains shot dead by mutineers, dramatic rescues in icy waters. These landbound wives could not conceive of the excitement of such drama, or imagine the lives of the families who sailed without mishap. They saw no challenge, no thrill; only the evils of weathered skin, the pity of coarse manners.
“Will you grow your heliotrope this year, Mrs. Marr?” Mrs. Black turned the conversation to Flower Sunday, in July, when the church would be decorated with blooms from their gardens.
“ . . . lovely new rose. Mr. Marr brought some rootstock from England . . .”
“ . . . Love-Lies-Bleeding. So foggy in Saint John, can’t grow . . .”
Azuba looked at Carrie and raised her eyebrows. The biscuit. Eat it.
She pictured Nathaniel sitting in a hotel parlour in San Francisco. Perhaps he was speaking to a woman with sunbrowned cheeks who was sailing with her captain husband, telling her about his own beautiful wife, Azuba, back home in New Brunswick, and of their fine house on the headland overlooking the Bay of Fundy, and of Carrie, his little daughter. Perhaps the sun-browned woman bowed her head demurely and then slid him an admiring glance. And Nathaniel was free to think of Azuba as privileged, safe, fortified by wealth, glorified by her absent husband.
Carrie nibbled nervously at her crumbly butter biscuit. Azuba felt sudden rage at the sight of her little girl, already burdened by the weight of expectation. Expectations. These tiresome women who clucked so disapprovingly expected her to come to their sewing circle. They expected her to grow formal flowers suitable for ornate vases or placement in the church. Like her parents, they expected her to spend Nathaniel’s money on carriages and dresses, and to stand proud at village events—ship launches, cotillions. Like Nathaniel, they expected her to produce children on whom a father might lavish attention when he returned on his infrequent visits.
Sun broke through a bank of clouds, quivered in the rainbowed daffodils. In the room, the light illuminated the stuffed partridge and the powder on Mrs. Black’s cheek.
Azuba leaned forward and set her cup and saucer on a table whose heavy cloth silenced the motion. She sat staring at the wrinkled pages of Captain Black’s letter, lying beneath Mrs. Black’s pince-nez.
Never again. Never again will Nathaniel set sail without me.
She glanced at Carrie.
Without us.
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Table of Contents

PART ONE: Whelan’s Cove
1. Noah’s Ark
2. A Family of Sorts
3. Davidson’s Beach
4. Sea Chests
PART TWO: Outward Bound
5. Chalk Line
6. Cape Horn Snorter
7. Yellow Dust
8. Moonstones
9. One Man Short
10. Ice Barque
PART THREE: The Atlantic
11. A Dead Ship
12. Creature of Barnyards
13. Crazy-Quilt Sails
PART FOUR: Antwerp
14. Lace and Diamonds
15. Chameleon
16. Flemish Feathers
PART FIVE: Hong Kong Bound
17. Safe Anchorage
18. Like Dragon’s Wings
PART SIX: Homeward
19. Rabbit Pie
20. The Orchard
Epilogue Glossary Acknowledgments
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Reading Group Guide

Growing up in the seafaring town of Whelan's Cove, Azuba Bradstock dreamed of sailing the open seas. But even after she marries captain Nathaniel Bradstock, Azuba and her daughter Carrie remain on land, occupied with the busy yet disenchanting life of a sea captain's wife. But Azuba's imagination never lets go of the idea of life abroad: exotic ports, tropical climates, and unknown adventure.

In the wake of personal tragedy, Azuba befriends Reverend Walton. He is new to Whelan's Cove and, like Azuba, he is fascinated by the sea. After a misunderstood accident calls Azuba's relationship with Walton into question, Nathaniel finally relents and agrees to let Azuba join him aboard his ship. Although under much different circumstances than she'd ever imagined, and with her family's happiness and husband's trust in jeopardy, Azuba strives to adjust to the rhythms of their voyage.

The Sea Captain's Wife is the story of a woman driven by determination and strength to hold together a family she dearly loves amid the dangers and hardships of an often harsh and frightening world. The life Azuba once desperately longed introduces her not only the pleasure of adventure but brings her and her family to the brink of death, to face impossible decisions, and challenge the very foundation of her marriage in order to survive.


Beth Powning's debut novel The Hatbox Letters was a national bestseller in Canada and longlisted for IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her fiction has been published in a range of literary digests, and she is the author as well of the critically acclaimed nonfiction titles Home: Chronicle of a North Country Life andShadow Child: an Apprenticeship in Love and Loss. She lives on a 300-acre farm near Sussex, New Brunswick on the Bay of Fundy with her husband, the sculptor Peter Powning.

Q. The Sea Captain's Wife is rich with detail from the time period as well as festooned with specific seafaring terminology. How do you go about researching a book like this?

I started with a single book, "Women at Sea in the Age of Sail." I noticed the sources at the back of that book, many which were original documents in the New Brunswick Museum archives. I spent days in the archives, reading diaries, letters, and captain's logs. I also read old newspapers on microfilm at the Saint John Regional Library. Amazon and ABE books were a terrific source. I bought many used books, even some very rare ones. I sought out collections of stories, scholarly studies, and several Master's theses, one on the sociology of a seafaring town, one on pirates of the South China Sea. I also used travel guides of the period, one which was used by my great-great-great uncle, and from which I drew the portrait of Antwerp. I watched and re-watched a movie about a square-rigged ship that I found at Mystic Seaport. I visited the tall ships when they came to the Maritimes, tried on a hoop skirt, spent a week in a living history museum. I also spent two weeks on a small ship in the Arctic, which is where I envisioned how Azuba and Carrie would have felt when they stood, mittened and scarved, gazing at those icebergs.

Q. What was your inspiration for Azuba and Nathaniel Bradstock?

My inspiration comes from the place where I live, on an old farm close to the Bay of Fundy. For years, I have stood on those headlands and stared out at the inhospitable water, wondering what it must have been like when it was filled with ships. I have seen the savagery of winter storms, walked on icy beaches, seen abandoned shipyards at the mouths of rivers. And I am surrounded with stories of the men and women who peopled the hills where I live. I walk and ski in forests that were once fields. I see cellarholes on remote hillsides, and stand in the wind on fierce winter nights, trying to imagine the people who once lived in this house.

Azuba and Nathaniel grew as the story grew.

Azuba stepped onto the page one day, when I had a surfeit of research and couldn't stop myself from starting to write. I had become impatient with a sort of self-censoring I felt in the women's diaries. I wanted to know what those women were really feeling; and then I realized that that was my job. I had to figure that out and write it down. I simply began, with a woman somewhat like one I had been reading about, who, in the 1860's, had been on a ship like Traveller, with a child the age of Carrie. I loved the juxtaposition of the horrifying Chinchas Islands with the Victorian parlours of those captain's wives, and so I began writing, in the first person, a description of why Azuba was wearing a white headscarf to protect herself from the yellow dust.

Nathaniel was a composite of all the hard captains I had read about, some who were quite cruel to their wives. As the story grew, events shaped the characters, and then the characters shaped the events. By the end of writing the novel, I knew Azuba and Nathaniel as intimately as I know my own family. Yet they were not complex characters when I began.

Q. Each character is heavily detailed, down to the buttons on their shirts. How do you flesh out your characters? In your mind, what constitutes a well-constructed character?

There is the physical aspect, the outer person, as they appear to the eye of the beholder. And then there is the secret, private, deeply-hidden person.

I create the physical aspect by a conscious, almost clinical method. Sometimes I think of someone I have seen whose face I can describe. Sometimes I find a photograph, which I study. I studied two faces to make a composite for Nathaniel. They were both men who were on Shackleton's ill-fated expedition. Azuba's face I made up in my head. I saw her dark hair and the shape of her forehead. Carrie came from a photograph, a solemn little girl whose face gave me an insight into Carrie's character.

At Sarah Lawrence College, I began as an acting major before changing to Creative Writing. I learned the Stanislavsky method, which is how I create the characters that I write. In order to go inside, I need to be that person. I have to know what Azuba is wearing, how her hair feels on her face, if she is bathed or filthy, how she stands, how she moves.

Then I go inside. What is she feeling? And if so, why? What does she want? Is she ashamed of herself? What has she learned from a particular incident? And what factors made her the person she is? What did it do to Nathaniel to grow up with only men and an unloving mother? I am fascinated with how parents shape their children, and how children learn to understand and forgive the people who made them who they are. I am fascinated with how people learn to love, with how they move beyond hate, with how they deal with fear.

These are the things that interest me, both in real life and in the pages of novels. How do we become who we are, and how do we learn how to live a good life?

A well-constructed character is one I can easily picture, in my mind's eye; and whose inner life I can feel, and thus care about, passionately.

Q. How do you go about mapping out a story that takes place over such a long period of time and all over the world? What difficulties do you face on a project like this?

I started with an actual voyage that I'd read about. That way, I had a template for how long a ship would actually take to go from New Brunswick to San Francisco; or from London to Java. I took a few real incidents that set my imagination on fire. Starvation, pirates. And the horrors of the guano islands. I didn't actually map out the book, but dove in, knowing only that I had a captain husband, his wife, and their child. The story emerged as I wrote.

I had two particular difficulties. One was to keep the "tone" of my research out of the novel. I read many, many dry historical books, and that tone was likely to infect my own prose. I went through one draft doing nothing but purging that tone.

The other problem was that I was so fascinated by the drama, the actual amazing sweep of the story, and the delicious details, that I had to work hard to find the real depth of those characters. That was my biggest challenge, and the thing that kept me awake at night. Who were they, really? How did they really feel about each other?

Q. What are you working on now? Will we hear more from the Bradstocks in the future?

I am working on a novel that takes place in the 17th century, and is set primarily in England and in New England. It is based on a real historical figure, whose life has some totally unknown parts, which gives me scope for imagination.

The Bradstocks… ah, many people have asked me for a sequel. I did go so far as to begin researching the fate of concubines in China, to see what may have happened to Lisette, but I think each reader will have to take that journey in their own imagination!


  • When Azuba loses her baby at the beginning of the book, Nathaniel is at sea. What effect does Nathaniel's absence have on this situation and how does it inform Azuba's actions after her loss?
  • The idea of fate arises several times throughout the book. How does Azuba see her fate while growing up on the Bay of Fundy? How do Reverend Walton or Nathaniel Bradstock see theirs? How do each of these characters fight for or against their fate, and are they successful? Do you believe in fate?
  • Nathaniel Bradstock takes on a different persona when aboard Traveller. What conflicts arise between his roles as husband and father and as captain? How do they inform his decisions? How would you have handled the same situation?
  • Azuba's relationship with Reverend Walton undergoes intense scrutiny from both her family and Nathaniel. What is your opinion of their relationship? If it were Nathaniel who had a close friendship with another woman, how would it be seen? How would the situation have changed if Nathaniel were at home?
  • Azuba compares the way Nathaniel appears in person versus his daguerreotype. How does the distance between them change the way they see each other? What impact does that distance have on their relationship throughout the story?
  • What personal sacrifices does Azuba make in going to sea with Nathaniel? Would you have made the same sacrifices? What other alternatives did you see for Azuba?
  • Azuba's onboard pregnancy heightens the stakes in this novel. How do you feel about her decision? Considering the jeopardy that befalls Traveller later in the book, would you have taken the same risk and why?
  • Azuba notices that other captains' wives had, like Mrs. Marshall, "become somewhat like men themselves." How do you think the other wives see Azuba? How do the sailors aboard Traveller see her? How does Azuba feel about the gender roles aboard the ship and how does it affect her?
  • Azuba observes that Nathaniel "thinks of Traveller as his home." What is "home" to Azuba? What is "home" to Nathaniel after he returns from sea unable to captain his ship again?
  • Considering all Carrie witnesses during the voyage, what impact does the decision to bring Carrie along have on the relationship between she and Azuba? How does the decision affect Carrie's relationship with Nathaniel? How will the events of this book inform Carrie's future?
  • What does Simon Walton mean to Carrie? How does this differ from what Nathaniel means to her? How does the way she feel about both men change by the end of the book?
  • Azuba laments to herself that "the only women she would be fit to visit would be the other captains' wives, who also knew the true size of the world." Knowing what she knows and having the experiences she had, what do you see in the future of Azuba Bradstock and her family?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 39 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 39 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 28, 2012

    I loved this book...I tend to like historical fiction in general

    I loved this book...I tend to like historical fiction in general, and
    was intrigued by the story concept of a wife on board this type of ship,
    in this particular era. The adventures of life at sea were interesting
    to read, and as another reviewer observed, made me realize the enormous
    intellect these sea captains had, as well as the responsibility they
    bore. What really drew me in though, was the emotional journey and love
    story that Azuba and Nathaniel embarked on. To begin their sea journey
    estranged, and watch as they drew closer to each other, was the best
    part of the book for me...I guess I'm just a romantic! But I really
    enjoyed this book, and am looking forward to reading more by this author.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 17, 2012

    Beautiful writing, plot falls short

    This book was beautifully written, and the first half had me very interested. But, the characters spoke so rarely, the story dragged and was bogged down in the same thoughts presented way too often. Her research and writing get a thumbs up, but I did lose interest towards the end. A book without adequete dialogue just is not always enjoyable to read. Especially when written in the third person.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 19, 2011

    Would recommend highly,

    Takes you away, like any good historical read should. Wonderful descriptions of life aboard ship and the dangers. Characters were believable, normal people for that age, got involved and couldn't put it down.

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  • Posted August 11, 2011

    Engaging writing with believable characters. Very good summer reading.

    Enjoyable, and different story..I would recommend it!

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  • Posted August 1, 2011

    Drama and Intriguie

    The Sea Captain's Wife is a novel that had me intrigued right from the get-go. Being a historical fiction I was perplexed, since I mostly do not tend to read historical fiction unless it is Young Adult. I'd heard absolutely wonderful things from co-workers about Beth Powning's writing and knew I had to give it a try. The Sea Captain's Wife is an intriguing tale perfect for any woman with a passion for the sea and the need for a tale with drama, intrigue and emotion. For it's girth I found it rather quick to get through. The development and drama is what immediately had me looped around it's unjust fingers, tugging me further into the novel. Unfortunately, I also found that Beth Powning's writing would get very repetitive, unsteady, and at times rather confusing.

    Experience and age was definitely key when it came to enjoying this novel. It was rather unfortunate that I could not sympathize or rather "see eye-to-eye" with Azuba and establish a reader/character connection, which inevitably led to my 3/5 star rating. Aside from that I found The Sea Captain's Wife to a fairly enjoyable developing tale.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 5, 2011

    Loved this book.

    I reccomend this book to people who love a good historical novel, adventure, strong women charactors, and relationship development.

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  • Posted April 12, 2011

    Great Read

    couldnt put it down once i started reading it. I enjoy romance but not much in it but these characters almost seemed real. Can't wait to read more by this author.

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  • Posted March 20, 2011

    Awesome read

    Lovely book with realistic characters....looking forward to reading something else by this author.

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  • Posted March 18, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Loved it!

    Loved it, great book, finished in one sitting!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 12, 2011


    I had often wished for a novel about the women who went to sea with their captain husbands. This exceeded those hopes--Powning creates well-rounded heroic characters with human flaws and the realistic portrait of a marriage. I was captivated.

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  • Posted January 29, 2011

    Rich prose and a Compelling Narrative!

    This inspired novel has kept me in thrall for the past week as I pick it up, read some, internalize it, relive it and then think about it some more. I marvel at authors like Beth Powning who can so beautifully craft words into more than ideas - emotions and feelings, events, simple moments or terrifying hours on a storm-tossed sea.

    Nathaniel came to life in such a compelling way and for the first time, I realized the terrible responsibility that weighed on those sea captains to bring their ships home safely. And the days of utter boredom for Azuba and Carrie made manageable by their remembering. That, too, made me realize, perhaps not for the first time, but certainly at a very deep level, how important storytelling and remembering details about everyday life were to those who had no other connection to their pasts than words.

    I was surprised that there were no Book Club discussion questions at the end. This is a novel that I certainly am recommending to my Book Club at our next meeting. And why?

    Beth Powning proves to us on every page of this moving and very real novel that the art of rich and forceful storytelling is not yet lost!

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    Posted April 7, 2011

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    Posted August 9, 2012

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    Posted March 20, 2011

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