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July's Book
Ahab's Wife
by Sena Jeter Naslund

Bill:
"Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last." So begins Sena Jeter Naslund's sweeping historical novel Ahab's Wife or the Star-Gazer., Naslund, a professor at the University of Louisville, has taken a brief passage from Herman Melville's Moby Dick concerning Captain Ahab's young wife and expanded it into an engrossing tale of adventure, romance, and redemption. bookclub@ket starts now.

Bill:
Talk about the protagonist Una and this character that suddenly from the very first page jumps out.

Wilma:
Well, do you want me to start? I would be glad to. Una is a young woman. We take her through her life -- her childhood years and up through her twenties. She is living in the first half of the 19th century, and she has a number of adventures. She starts out in a cabin on the Ohio River in Kentucky, and her adventures take her to Massachusetts where she is when the novel ends. Among the other adventures that she has, she becomes the wife of Ahab who is the protagonist in Moby Dick. So there is a tie-in with Moby Dick and a tie-in with a great many other cultural and literary figures of the times.

Bill:
Some both fictional and non-fictional if we can talk about that.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Bill:
Dana, you are here this month for Jonathan and we are glad.

Dana:
Filling in for him.

Bill:
Let's talk a little bit more about Una -- such a character, so large in life, so many different areas of her life. Tell me a little bit more about your impressions of Una.

Dana:
I liked Una. I mean there are times when she is a little too large, but I guess I really liked the way -- it's hard for me to talk about Una without talking about Ahab. I liked the way Naslund built that relationship and takes a man who is so much larger than life in Moby Dick and gives him a certain kind of life. It makes him believable in a way that I never found him to be in Moby Dick. And then gives him a match, gives him a woman who can stand up to him and be as tough as him and have her own dimensions that aren't necessarily about what connects up with him. And I enjoyed that about her. I like that character.

Bill:
You see that building, but she was a strong character long before she met Captain Ahab, don't you think Rochelle? I mean even when she was a child and some of the experiences of being a lover of literature and such, sort of a bold precocious youngster.

Rochelle:
I think her strength of character and the types of adventures that she had made her the right companion for Ahab. And I went back and re-read Moby Dick to sort of see how these two played off of each other. I got a better sense of Ahab as a person from reading this book although the characterizations and the descriptions of him and his passion were better by Melville, I really liked him more after getting a sense of somebody else seeing him. I got to see this character through somebody else's eyes and when the book deals with that romance and that relationship I think it's wonderful. It's just such a great love story, and he was a pretty strong character so she had to be his match.

Bill:
Dava, again going back to when she was growing up. Let's talk a little bit about the first time she she stowed away on board and some of that and anything else that impressed you with about Una.

Dava:
Well, I told Dana about this earlier. I think Una is the Forest Gump of the first half of the 19th century.

Wilma:
I do, too.

Dava:
Everywhere she goes she's in an adventure and almost everywhere she goes she meets someone famous. She starts out in Kentucky, she goes to live in a lighthouse, or at a lighthouse with her aunt and her family and then she stows away on a boat, pretends to be a cabin boy, and then the boat gets rammed by a whale. She ends up out at sea and one of the worst times of her life occurs out there. She has to participate in cannibalism and that's all throughout the book ever since. That is her biggest guilt, and then she goes back to Nantucket (before then she was married once), and she marries Ahab for a second marriage.

She has one living child by him and then, at the end, she has a working relationship with this man that she considers a marriage. I liked it because there was so much action in it, and she meets so many people. She knows Margaret Fuller who is a pretty close friend of hers. She knows Maria Mitchell. She even meets Henry James when he is very young. She knows Frederick Douglas -- I mean on and on.

Bill:
Let's keep naming -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Everyone:
Nathaniel Hawthorne,

Bill:
Nathaniel Hawthorne. Well, maybe that goes back to Dana's comment that it is too expansive. Is the character too large?

Wilma:
I agree with you exactly on Forest Gump. It came to my mind too and not done as well. The book was perplexing to me simply because I felt that here was this character Una who was uneducated. She had no formal education whatsoever and yet every place she goes she happens to be there at the exact time when something important is happening in history in the 19th century. I almost thought at one part point in the book, is the author trying to do farce? Is she trying to do camp? It's so over the top and so contrived in so many ways that I almost thought, hey this could work as a joke. You know it's that over the top for me and everything is contrived trying to get all of Moby Dick into the book also, but especially when she is meeting all of these famous people and sometimes not just meeting them sometimes she gives them advice and they take it.

Rochelle:
Tell us how you really feel.

(Everyone laughs.)

Bill:
Yeah go ahead.

Dana:
I think it's the part with the historical figures that always felt contrived and uncomfortable to me. I don't like the scene with Hawthorne it just felt...

Rochelle:
Horrible.

Dana:
It just felt difficult to me to take Hawthorne and make him into one of his characters. You are always telling students not to do that.

Rochelle:
Uh huh.

Dana:
Don't confuse the author with the character, but I do think there is a kind of psychological force to the way she develops Una's character that I felt completely compelling. The one thing we haven't talked about in her childhood yet is her relationship with her father which I think is so formative and makes her through this kind of close adversity.

Bill:
Defiant.

Dana:
Yeah. I mean to have somebody who loves you and who you depend on for care be that opposed to who you are as a human being. That really shapes her as a person and shapes her strengths, but also shapes her vulnerabilities in interesting ways that I found compelling.

Rochelle:
Well, let me play devil's advocate for a minute, not about the father because I absolutely agree with you on that portion and that relationship. I wish she had just sort of left out the whole Margaret Fuller part, but I didn't get the sense that it was Gumpish because you have to remember that if you are trying to make this a 19th century memoir none of these people were really famous then and you did happen to bump into lots of people who were doing things that would later have them remembered in big ways. I wasn't bothered by some of the relationships. I think it was distracting to have too many different sort of name droppings. But it didn't stop me and I didn't think Forest Gump. Until you said that, it that didn't dawn on me at all.

But one of the things that I liked was that you got a sense of this person of a different time, and whether it takes a lot of research or a lot of just sort of knowledge of writing to be able to do that and speak in the voice of a person who is actually living during that time instead of now, instead of trying to talk about somebody who is remembering living in the 20th century but trying to remember that. I really bought Una as a character and her adventures and some of the things that happened were not unexpected for what she was doing. If you stow away on a whaler all of those things could have happened. Now whether all of those things might have happened to a real person, I mean literally, everything that could possibly happen, all of those things could happen. So it was easier for me to suspend disbelief.

Bill:
Maybe we can talk about the novel in a way that the real characters are separated from the ones that she wrote about, that Ms. Naslund made up and put in her novel. Don't you think it takes on a different flavor?

Rochelle:
I just dealt with the fiction.

Bill:
It was a matter of convenience that she was running into so many people to the point that you almost expected another character right around the corner. But there were so many other people in the novel. And the writing style.

Dana:
It's also true that in the 19th century the United States was a much smaller place. It's amazing when you read the historical ...

Bill:
It could have actually

Dana:
... literature how much people ran into people who we now think are..

Wilma:
If she were an educated woman. If there were some reason for her to be in these places and Henry James at the end on the beach.

Bill:
But.

(Everyone laughs.)

Wilma:
You are never going to justify that one for me.

Bill:
Wilma,

Wilma:
Yes.

(Everyone laughs.)

Rochelle:
She is going to slap you, Bill.

Bill:
You said formal education.

Wilma:
Yes, uh huh.

Bill:
You said formal education, she did not have that. But her mother was a terribly well read and had educated her. She was almost in home school.

Wilma:
Literature, but not in the sciences.

Rochelle:
Did she have to know the sciences?

Bill:
She allowed Maria Mitchell to do.

Wilma:
I think what I'm trying to say is there is no way for her to get an introduction to these people. She is a Captain's wife and I am sure that had some prestige in the 19th century but nothing like some of the other people had. And I do think the one relationship that would have certainly been possible would have been the one with Maria Mitchell who was living in Nantucket at the same time. She was a woman who was about the same age as Una, and I could see where they would have met. At that time certainly Maria Mitchell was not famous. She was an astronomer, but I thought that relationship was okay. But when she starts wandering through the woods and meets Nathaniel Hawthorne and even Margaret Fuller at the at the book store, that's too much for me, but I think certainly Maria Mitchell was a possibility.

Dava:
Maybe I'm not bothered so much by the people she meets, but it seemed like the book was trying to portray her as an academic sort of character. I thought her biggest strength was her open-mindedness and just the fact that she didn't close anyone off.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Dava:
And

Dana:
Which is why I think all of this stuff about cannibalism works out in a really important way.

Bill:
But also academic, but would you also say strong-willed?

Women: Sure

Bill:
A strong feminist character which...

Dana:
Feminist.

Bill:
In that time certainly, yes, because in that time you did not read of other women except there are references, of course, to real people like Margaret Fuller and maybe Maria Mitchell who were strong women, too, but not the same sort of character that Una carried through. I think maybe Ms. Naslund was trying to establish an equal to some of the men figures that you read about in 19th century literature that are so heralded. For example, a lot of people might think that Captain Ahab in Una sort of met his match.

Rochelle:
That's what I think.

Wilma:
You did ask one thing about the other characters, and I do think certainly and I thought this rung true at the lighthouse when she was with her aunt and uncle and her little cousin and I felt and those are fictional characters not taken from Moby Dick...

(woman laughs)

Wilma:
... or from history, those are actual characters that the author has made up herself. And I thought that seemed real, and also Giles and Kit too at the beginning not maybe necessarily when we got ...

Rochelle:
They did get kind of wild.

Wilma:
... aboard the ship and so on. Yeah, they got a little wild there. But I thought they were very believable so maybe if she had stuck to this very strong 19th century woman making her way with fictional characters, I think she could have done quite well. It appeared to me she was attempting almost too much in this book, and that was not necessary for a good story about a strong female character.

Dana:
It tries too hard to be a big novel.

Wilma:
Yes. And didn't have to be.

Rochelle:
That's a really good point. You either set out to write a really great story or you set out to write a classic, and I think that there was the attempt to write a classic, and she wound up with a really great story. If somebody had said well you know let's pare this down a little bit and deal with just this beautiful magnetic character that you have created. I loved the book, but I loved the character and the relationships that were built that really didn't have anything to do with Moby Dick. I liked the fact that she was Ahab's wife, and we only dealt with what happened with him in a little bit. Whatever happened to her, I was with her on the Sussex, even as a cabin boy. I can understand being sixteen years old and wanting to break free and thinking the only way to do it is to be a boy.

Bill:
I think that was one of the best parts.

Rochelle:
Oh, it was just fantastic, and I went with all of that. I had no problem going with everything.You may raise a good point, Wilma, with the just too many. The whole Margaret Fuller and just all of this stuff that it was almost like clutter that I had to get through to get back to Una.

(Everyone agrees)

Rochelle:
And what she was like and the life that she was living in this world that was apart from anything real.

Bill:
So you were, in sort of a trite expression, swept away.

Rochelle:
Oh, I was quite swept away. I fell overboard.

Bill:
(laughs)

Rochelle:
Oh that's really good.

(Everyone laughs.)

Bill:
Did you divide the novel up into into thirds or quarters in any way that is meaningful?

Dana:
I read it hard until Ahab died.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Dana:
And then I tried to keep reading, and I kept getting really impatient with how much was left and how slow it was going. I literally put it away for almost two weeks before I could come back and finish the ending.

Bill:
Really?

Rochelle:
Uh huh. Absolutely same thing.

Dana:
There is a huge emotional climax around her realizing he is dead. And I almost didn't want a lot more, and it took me a while to work through the last part. So I galloped through it until I got to that part, and I was thinking this is amazing. I'm going to read 700 pages at a gallop, and then I didn't.

Wilma:
And you are right. There was an emotional climax there, and she had come to terms with it. The novel could have been ended there.

Rochelle:
Yeah, I was looking for the ending. I was going to tell you. Now this is where it should have stopped.

Dana:
It should have ended.

Rochelle:
That last 100 pages was tough. I'm glad that she reconciled with her family in the lighthouse, that she left to go sailing. And I love the way they introduce Ahab's death. I keep saying they -- you know Sena and her editors, but I liked how she would find out what it meant for her son, but I didn't want to know any more. It's like what happened with Justice's son and going off to Europe. You know all of that stuff, I really struggled, too.

Wilma:
And the worst possible ending.

Dana:
I was going to say I knew it was.

(Everybody laughs)

Dana:
I wasn't going to bring it up. You don't want to ruin it for people. It's like telling them.

(Everyone talks at once)

Bill:
Well we can do that.

Wilma:
Ishmael who is the narrator of Moby Dick comes back into her life, and she marries him. Well, she doesn't even marry him.

Dana:
Well, she doesn't really marry any of them.

Wilma:
She doesn't marry anybody. She sort of married three times. But let's assume she married Ishmael.

Dana:
Marriage of passion.

Wilma:
It's still ridiculous.

Rochelle:
That's right. That's a good phrase.

Bill:
Did Captain marry Una and Kit?

Dana:
Oh come on, well ...

(Everyone talks at once)

Bill:
Well, he did! He did!

(Everyone laughs.)

Bill:
You sort of have to cloak yourself, as you did, in being swept away in this 19th century writing style. In fact, I talked with somebody else about the writing style and I didn't want to say on the bookclub that the writing was lovely, that doesn't sound like something that I should say. And this other person said "pleasant." It's stronger than pleasant to me. I mean the writing style is beautiful writing. Do you disagree with that?

Wilma:
You know, I thought it was pretty good until I went back and also read Moby Dick and I went, wow!

Rochelle:
It's not a companion to Moby Dick.

Wilma:
No, it is not.

Rochelle:
Don't read the two at the same time.

Wilma:
Together. No, you shouldn't.

Rochelle:
But let me say that this is some of the most beautiful writing that I have ever read in portions. There are parts of this book and its not just one little passage here or there. When she loses her baby ...

Bill:
I agree.

Rochelle:
... in the cabin with the slave girl.

Bill:
Yes.

Rochelle:
You know, I was so moved.

Wilma:
That's good.

Rochelle:
There are portions of this book that are some of the most beautiful writing I have ever read, and then there are portions that are inconsistent that get you to the next beautiful passage. In that sense, I don't think it's much different than some portions of Moby Dick which was greeted with a lot of criticism and oh who wants to read it and it became a classic later. I think people will look back to understand Ahab a little better and find more of him in this book. I really believe that.

Bill:
Although she says and we talked with her and this will be on the web site in a couple of weeks, but she says that it was not written as any sort of companion. You don't have to read Moby Dick.

Dana:
I have a feeling it works better if you don't.

Bill:
Really.

Dana:
I think people who come to it with Moby Dick expectations are inevitably going to be doing this balancing, measuring kind of thing.

Rochelle:
You don't want to compare.

Bill:
Well I don't think so.

Dana:
I actually think it stacks up nicely against some 19th century women writers. You know, in a way that it is just never going to against Melville because what Melville is trying to do is very different from what Naslund is aiming at.

Wilma:
I do want to talk about one thing that Rochelle brought up, and it's that opening scene that she chose to put first. It comes much later in the novel, but she chose to put first where she is having her baby in the Kentucky cabin alone.

Rochelle:
Right.

Wilma:
And the runaway slave girl has somehow hidden actually in the bed.

Rochelle:
In between her mattresses.

Wilma:
In between her mattresses and when the bounty hunters, come she they can't find her. Well, it's very interesting. I think it is one of the best parallels to Moby Dick because at the beginning of Moby Dick we have Ishmael in bed with Queequeg and now we have Una in bed with a runaway slave girl, with Susan. I think that's a nice comparison, and I think it works best when she does that and she doesn't try to contrive oh exactly where was Starbuck at the time exactly where was Stub and so on.

(Everyone agrees.)

Wilma:
She had to bring in all the characters in Moby Dick. But I think when there is a parallel like that, I think that works very well.

Rochelle:
So you think she could have left out more Moby Dick.

Wilma:
Oh yes.

Rochelle:
I would agree with that. I think the book stands on its own to tell the story of his wife without having to deal with connections or with trying to be Melville's equal.

Dava:
Well, all of this makes me glad I haven't read Moby Dick. I'm the only one in the group.

(Everyone laughs.)

Dava:
I don't want to read it now.

Rochelle:
But let me tell you Moby Dick is a different book when Ahab is introduced.

Bill:
Yes.

Rochelle:
Now I struggle even now even years later I struggled through the first part of Moby Dick because it's all of the science and wonder of whaling and these different characters and these different people. And I am looking for Ahab, and I am trying to remember now when does he come in.

Dana:
When is the chase.

Rochelle:
And you know the chase is like, as you said, I think it was the last...

Bill:
Last.

Rochelle:
... three chapters of the book. So Ahab is a bigger character in this book for me than in that one, except when Melville gets to him and describes him.

Bill:
It's certainly hard not to compare.

Rochelle:
You can't help it though.

Bill:
You really can't because of the title. Did she expand it in a way? Did she sort of take this 19th century life that maybe we learn from Moby Dick or from other writers in that genre and sort of expand it in a way that made parts of the novel really become more believable? Or did it again sort of go over the top in a way that maybe there was too much of that?

Dana:
Did she do that for Moby Dick? Is that what you are asking?

Bill:
No, did she do that for this novel.

Rochelle:
I think so.

Bill:
In a way that it becomes, and I'll try to do a little bit better job this time,

(Everyone laughs.)

Bill:
is that in Moby Dick it was very narrow in a way that you were on board with ...

Dana:
There is this kind of obsessive focus. (Everyone agrees)

Bill:
Yes, and in this novel she has a more expansive view.

Dana:
It's almost quixotic in a certain sense. I mean it's almost that kind of episodic travel narrative that Moby Dick can't be because they are in such a close space, as you have just said.

Rochelle:
But I like that word better than Forest Gumpish.

Dana:
Quixotic?

Rochelle:
Yes.

(Everyone laughs.)

Rochelle:
You know, it's more that for me: adventures as opposed to...

Dana:
Yeah. Well I do think it's uneven, but what I really love about Naslund -- and if I can just mention her short story writing. The Disobedience of Water is amazing and it gets at what Rochelle was describing, and is so beautiful about some of her writing. She can write about feeling in a way that makes you feel as though somebody has wrenched open your heart. Moments like that just totally captivated me.

Bill:
I'm glad you brought that up because somebody else who struggled through some of Ahab went to the Disobedience of Water.

Dana:
Those stories are amazing.

Bill:
This person was swept away with that writing of her short stories.

Wilma:
It's interesting that Dana has said that because I felt, when I was reading this, that her forte might be short stories because she does so well in a particular story that she is trying to tell. I think it loses something when she stretches them all out into a whole novel. I can see some of these being fine short stories, but I didn't think it held as well together when she tried to make them into a novel. Not that she was writing short stories, but I felt that maybe in the short term or short story she would be excellent at it.

Bill:
Well, let me ask in sort of elaborate on this if you will. The critics have often asked if this belongs on the bookshelf with Moby Dick. I'm not going to start with you, Wilma. I am going to start down at the other end of the table, but instead of just a yes or no or we have sort of talked about them being separated, but we are not certainly here to judge either one. That's been done many many times before, certainly with Herman Melville, but is it unfair to put it up there on the top shelf with Moby Dick?

Dana:
Well, I think it is a great story. I'm not as convinced that it holds together as well as a novel, but I think it's a lovely story, and I think that what she is doing is a certain kind of feminist retelling of history, and, in that sense, she has created this kind of female heroine that has the kind of stature, that would go alongside someone like Huck Finn.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Dana:
You know in a certain sense it feels to me like she belongs on the shelf with people like Rita Mae Brown, writers who are really working against a male canonical tradition to try to help girls and women rethink the legacy that they are delivered, to see more space for women inside of it. I think she kind of succeeds at that. I thought that some of those moments when she's on the Sussex and she's thinking -- I have been acting like a man for so long and people have been treating me like a man, I feel like a man. Those moments build character for her in interesting ways and make it available for readers to think about gender in more complicated ways. You know outside of the -- "women behave this way, men behave that way" -- kind of boxes.

Bill:
Yeah. Anybody else on that.

Rochelle:
I would put it right next to Moby Dick.

Bill:
All right.

Rochelle:
But of course, now I have my classics all in one place so it would be a little out of place. But I think because of what it did for me and understanding the other side of this character, I wouldn't tell people to go and read them both together anymore than I would say read Moby Dick and The Red Badge of Courage at the same time. But I think that it's good to know that they co-exist.

Bill:
And Wilma on the book shelf.

Wilma:
Moby Dick happens to be, coincidentally, my favorite book of all times.

Rochelle:
Oh, my God.

Narrator:
Remember to check out ket.org and learn more about this book and other bookclub selections. Plus enjoy author interviews and discussion boards. You can join the club any time. The address is ket.org.

Bill:
And Dava would you say this is a good summer read, a good beach book? Is it something that you would recommend to somebody?

Dava:
Oh yeah, it's an adventure like it's supposed to be and I really did

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