Ahab's Wife (Naslund)

Ahab's Wife or The Star Gazer
Sena Jeter Naslund, 1999
668 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780060838744

Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.

This is destined to be remembered as one of the most-recognized first sentences in literature—along with "Call me Ishmael." Sena Jeter Naslund has created an entirely new universe with a transcendent heroine at its center who will be every bit as memorable as Captain Ahab.

Ahab's Wife is a novel on a grand scale that can legitimately be called a masterpiece: beautifully written, filled with humanity and wisdom, rich in historical detail, authentic and evocative. Melville's spirit informs every page of her tour de force. Una Spenser's marriage to Captain Ahab is certainly a crucial element in the narrative of Ahab's Wife, but the story covers vastly more territory.

After a spellbinding opening scene, the tale flashes back to Una's childhood in Kentucky; her idyllic adolescence with her aunt and uncle's family at a lighthouse near New Bedford; her adventures disguised as a cabin boy on a whaling ship; her first marriage to a fellow survivor who descends into violent madness; courtship and marriage to Ahab; life as mother and a rich captain's wife in Nantucket; involvement with Frederick Douglass; and a man who is in Nantucket researching his novel about his adventures on her ex-husband's ship.

Ahab's Wife is a breathtaking, magnificent, and uplifting story of one woman's spiritual journey, informed by the spirit of the greatest American novel, but taking it beyond tragedy to redemptive triumph. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—Birmingham, Alabama, USA
Education—B.A., Birmingham-Souther College; Ph.D.
   University of Iowa Writers' Workshop
Awards—Harper Lee Award; Alabama Writer of the Year
Currently—Louisville, Kentucky, USA

Sena Jeter Naslund grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, where she attended public schools and received a B.A. from Birmingham-Southern College. She has also lived in Louisiana, West Virginia, and California. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. In addition to two other novels and two collections of short stories, her short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, the Michigan Quarterly Review and many others.

For 12 years she directed the Creative Writing Program at the University of Louisville, where she teaches and holds the title Distinguished Teaching Professor. Concurrently, she is a member of the M.F.A. in Writing faculty of Vermont College. She is cofounder and editor of the literary magazine The Louisville Review and the Fleur-de-lis Press, housed at Spaulding University, and has taught at the University of Montana and Indiana University. She is the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the Kentucky Arts Council. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

• Naslund is the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the Kentucky Arts Council.

• She has taught literature since 1972, directing the creative writing program at University of Louisville, where she was awarded its first-ever Distinguished Teaching Professor honor. (From Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
Much of the book, though not all, I love. Mostly, I admire the creativity and courage of a writer to attempt such a work, especially a writer with a such a powerful sense of myth and elegant prose style. Overall, Naslund gives us a wide slice of 19th-century life, the great political, religious and philosophical conflicts of the time: abolition, women's suffrage, and religion versus reason. Una (a name symbolic of oneness with Ahab; Una is Ahab) has a 21st-century feminist sensibility, refusing to be tied down to the standard mores of her era...or this era, for that matter. Fulfillment is her pursuit, and she hunts it down with the single-mindedness of Ahab. The problem is that Una careens from one high adventure to another, which feels contrived, at times silly...
A LitLovers LitPick (Dec. '06)

"Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last," says Una Spenser, the eponymous narrator, in the first sentence of this deliciously old-fashioned bildungsroman, adventure story and romance. Naslund's inspiration, based on one reference in Moby-Dick, may not satisfy aficonados of Melville's dense, richly symbolic masterpiece, but it should please most other readers with its suspenseful, affecting, historically accurate and seductive narrative. At age 12, Una escapes her religiously obsessed father in rural Kentucky to live with relatives in a lighthouse off New Bedford, Mass. When she is 16Adisguised as a boyAshe runs off to sea aboard a whaler, which sinks after being rammed by its quarry. Una and two young men who love her are the only survivors of a group set adrift in an open boat, but the dark secret of their cannibalism will leave its mark. Rescued, Una is wed to one of the young men by the captain of the Pequod, handsome, commanding Ahab, who has not as yet met the white whale that will be his destiny. These eventsArecounted in stately prose nicely dotted with literary allusionsAtake the reader only through the first quarter of the book. Una's later marriage to AhabAa passionate and intellectually satisfying relationshipAthe loss of her mother and her newborn son in one night, and her life as a rich woman in Nantucket are further developments in a plot teeming with arresting events and provocative ideas. Una is an enchanting protagonist: intellectually curious, sensitive, imaginative and kind. But Naslund also endows her with restlessness, rash impetuosity and a refreshing skepticism about traditional religion, qualities that humanize what verges on an idealized personality, and that motivate Una's search for spiritual sustenance. Unitarianism and Universalism are two of the religions she investigates; other "dark issues of our time" include slavery, and the position of women. Social and cultural details texture the lengthy, episodic, discursive narrative. Una's search for identity brings her friendship with such real life figures as writer Margaret Fuller and astronomer Maria Mitchell, and with such colorful fictional characters as an escaped slave and a dwarf bounty hunter. Even Halley's Comet makes an appearance. Provocatively, Naslund (The Disobedience of Water) suggests a new source of Ahab's demented rage to kill the whale who has "unmasted" him. Some elements of the novel jar, especially Naslund's tendency to pay rhapsodic tributes to Una's questing spirit; a surfeit of noble, large-souled and amazingly generous characters; and the symmetrical neatness of the plot. In the last third of the book, readers may become weary of Una's spiritual reflections and the minutiae of her daily routine. But these are small faults in a splendid novel that amply fulfills its ambitious purpose offering a sweeping, yet intimate picture of a remarkable woman who both typifies and transcends her times.
Publishers Weekly

At age 12, Una a nonconformist, is sent from Kentucky to Nantucket because she refuses to believe in Christianity. At age 16 she runs away to sea, posing as a cabin boy aboard a whaler. She enjoys her adventure until the first whale is killed and processed, and then one day her ship is rammed by one of them. After weeks in a lifeboat, she is rescued and taken back to Nantucket aboard the Pequod with Captain Ahab. Una and Ahab find they have much in common, from their passionate tempers to their stubborn tenacity, so they marry and have a son. When Ahab returns to sea, he becomes obsessed with the white whale, Moby Dick. News comes back that the Pequod sank, leaving a single survivor called Ishmael. When Una meets him, her life begins again. Masterfully read by Maryann Plunkett and beautifully written, this tale gives another possible perspective on the dour Captain Ahab and his family. Recommended. —Joanna M. Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island, Coll. of Continuing Education Lib., Providence
Library Journal

Una...has the ability to rise and rise again after illness, destruction, and loss. And through it all she possesses a sense of wonder, the experience of divinity in all things. A complex and sophisticated book, brilliantly written, beautifully illustrated. —Grace Fill

Nothing in Naslund's previous fiction prepares us for this extraordinary tale: a ravishingly detailed re-creation of the worlds of 19th-century antebellum America and of Melvilles seminal Moby Dick. The protagonist, and primary narrator, is Una Spenser (whose bookish mother named her after the heroine of The Faerie Queene), whom we first meet in her native Kentucky, where shes returned to give birth to her first childsired by her second husband: middle-aged Ahab, captain of the whaling ship Pequod. Naslund's flexible and fascinating narrative then leaps from Una's ordeal (both her baby and her beloved mother die) and an inspiring new friendshipbackward, to the story of her upbringing among relatives who tend a New England lighthouse, apprenticeship at sea disguised as a cabin boy, conflicted first marriage to an increasingly deranged husband, and eventual union with the brooding Ahab, whom even his young wife's resourceful love cannot deflect him from his vengeful pursuit of the white whale he imagines Evil Incarnate. Then Una returns to Kentucky, thence back east (Nantucket), where her restless intellect involves her with New England's ruling intellectual elite (including Transcendentalist icon Margaret Fuller) and the burgeoning abolitionist movement. The climactic pages, concentrated on Ahab's increasing monomania and Una's realization that hes lost to her, vibrate with tragic intensity. And the long meditative denouement, alive with echoes of Melville's cadences, memorably depicts Una's gradual fulfillment in a society poised on the cusp of civil war, her being saved by living testimony of (her surviving son, Justice) and by her gratifying, if belated, relationship with the Pequod's sole survivor) to the power of love and service to others, both neutralizing the fury that had consumed the doomed Ahab. Excepting a few inconsequential false steps, a genuine epic of America: an inspired homage to one of our greatest writers that brilliantly reinterprets, and in many ways rivals, his masterpiece.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Ahab's Wife takes place in the early nineteenth century. In what ways is Una's story a product of the times in which she lives? In what ways are her experiences timeless?

2. Early on in Una's life, her mother instructs her, "Accept the world, Una. It is what it is" (p. 29). Does she?

3. In many ways, Ahab's Wife is a spiritual journey. What are the forces that guide Una? What is her notion of her placein the universe and how does it evolve over the course of her lifetime?

4. Una writes, "Let me assure you and tell you that I know you, even something of your pain and joy, for you are much like me. The contract of writing and reading requires that we know each other. Did you know that I try on your mask from time to time? I become a reader, too" (p. 148). Several times throughout this book, Una addresses the reader directly. What is the effect of this interchange? How do you participate and become a character in this novel?

5. Discuss Una's relationship to the sea.

6. At the most painful time in her life, when she has lost her child and her mother, Una befriends Susan. Why is this relationship so important to Una? What is it that Susan teaches her? Compare and contrast their friendship to Una's friendship with Margaret Fuller.

7. How do you react to Una's cannibalism? Was she justified in doing what she does to survive? Is Giles more culpable because he himself makes the decision and executes the other shipmates? Or is he the most courageous of all because he takes it on himself to make a terrible decision and save those he loved?

8. Throughout Ahab's Wife, Una makes reference to the works of great writers such as William Shakespeare, John Keats, and Homer. What is the effect of drawing on all these other books? How does it enhance, deepen, and expand Ahab's Wife?

9. How does Una reconcile "the inevitable animal within" (p. 256) with her spiritual aspirations?

10. Why do you think that three out of Una's four loves (Giles, Kit, and Ahab (go mad? Is this merely coincidence?

11. Throughout her life, Una explores the art of sewing. Although Maria Mitchell considers sewing to be an act and a skill that confines rather than liberates women, at one point Una supports herself with a needle and thread. Discuss the numerous ways in which images of mending, binding, and sewing inform the telling of this novel.

12. When Una is looking for icebergs on Ahab's ship, she returns his trust "with silence on the subject of a white whale and all his massive innocence" (p. 280). Has she betrayed Ahab? Why does she see the whale as innocent? After Ahab loses his leg and then his life, do you think she continues to see Moby-Dick as innocent?

13. "Beware the treachery of words, Mrs. Sparrow. They mean one thing to one person and the opposite to another" (p. 297), Ahab tells Una. Why do you think Una finally finds her vocation to be working with words?

14. "Wondering what Margaret Fuller would say to such a distinction between spiritual and moral matters, I asked the judge if he thought there was a difference" (p. 383). Do you think there is a difference?

15. Una's narrative plunges back in time, leaps ahead, and loops over itself again. Different sections are told through other characters' perspectives and through their letters. How does the narrative structure itself enact some of Una's beliefs about the world?

16. The alternate title of this book is The Star-Gazer. Why do you think Ms. Naslund chose to have an alternate title at all? What meanings does it hold?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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