Classic book review: Ahab's Wife

Using a stray reference in "Moby Dick," a novelist creates the story of Ahab's wife.

Ahab's Wife By Sena Jeter Naslund HarperCollins 704 pp., $15.95

[The Monitor occasionally reprints material from its archives. This review originally ran on Oct. 21, 1999.] Sena Jeter Naslund may be one of the most ambitious writers of the 19th century. And that's saying a lot for a woman born in 1942.

Since she was a child, Naslund was annoyed by the scarcity of women characters in America's canonized literature. Her new novel, Ahab's Wife, grew from a stray reference in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," and it goes a long way toward correcting that imbalance.

Una begins her sweeping voyage by confessing, "Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last." Here are the tales omitted - not just from "Moby Dick" - but from the whole sea of classic literature that pushed women over the horizon. Surprise: They aren't just darning socks and waiting for their men to come home.

The cargohold of this book is packed with heartbreaking struggle and richly imagined characters, including wonderful cameo appearances from a host of historical figures. Una's tumultuous story contains enough tragedy and triumph for a dozen novels. This is the kind of epic you sink into and willingly get lost in. Yes – I can't resist – it's a whale of a book.

At the breathless opening, Una is alone and in labor in a frozen Kentucky cabin. While she waits for her mother to return with a doctor, a young black girl bursts in, closely followed by a posse of slave catchers. One of the men, a midget dressed as a wolf, sniffs around aggressively, but Una manages to hide the girl under her bed and make a friendship that lasts the rest of her life.

A few days later, she watches her young friend escape across the ice in a wonderful allusion to Eliza in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" – just one of hundreds of references to other books in this leviathan novel. (A fully annotated version of "Ahab's Wife" would be 50 pages longer, but even more fun.)

Standing alone in the snow by the new graves of her mother and baby, Una thinks, "The world was a vast whiteness barred by the black trunks and limbs of trees.... Did Ahab also mourn? I fastened my gaze on the brown haunches of the two horses and their color was a relief from the world of alabaster and ebony. After that, I looked skyward."

Far over the horizon, Ahab descends into madness inspired by another "vast whiteness," but Una finds a healthier salve for her loss. While he rages at the horror of nothingness, she contemplates the infinity of the stars. While he shrinks to a single purpose, she maintains a rich and varied life.

But getting there is a torturous process for Una. Having described the hardest loss of her story, she begins her story again, from the beginning.

To escape her cruel father, she was sent away to live with liberal relatives in a lighthouse on the Massachusetts coast. There she spent several idyllic years and formed a fast friendship with Kit and Giles, two young men who expanded her mind and fired her spirit.

When they go looking for adventure at sea, Una brazenly cuts her hair, dons a pair of pants, and signs up as a cabin boy on their whaling ship.

The adventures that follow are riveting – and horrible. Una meets her own whale with an attitude, and the results are devastating. Before she's rescued by a then two-footed Ahab, Una breaks a taboo for which she spends her life atoning.

The answers are entirely different, but the philosophical questions posed here are every bit as interesting as Melville's. Naslund hasn't just written a female version of "Moby Dick"; she doesn't invert the gender stereotypes of that masterpiece and reenact its exclusion of half the human race. Instead, she creates a world of complex characters learning to interact compassionately with each other in the face of nature's recalcitrance and their own.

Undulating between adventure and contemplation, "Ahab's Wife" is a tour de force, a wild voyage through the 19th century and the American canon. That old whale has finally met his match.

Ron Charles is a former Monitor book editor.

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