by Sena Jeter Naslund
William Morrow and Company; 666 pages; $28
If there’s a discernible fad in fiction lately, it’s the rise of what might be called the footnote novel. Titles such as Hitler’s Niece and Galileo’s Daughter pack the shelves (to name just two footnote novels released this season), exalting the sidekicks, junior partners, and relatives of famous historic and literary names. Such books seem to share an underdog agenda, insisting anew that the last shall be first and that vast things are best viewed from underneath, or at least from an oblique angle. The titles imply the righting of old wrongs, a sort of artistic affirmative-action program. Most often, the stories propose to rescue women from the shadows of much-better-known men, although the formula is capable of almost infinite variations. Imagine Jim relating his travels with Huck. Imagine Big Two-Hearted River told from the point of view of the trout. Perhaps it’s true that no story is complete until all involved have had a crack at telling it, but then again, maybe not.
Ahab’s Wife, by Sena Jeter Naslund, is the year’s largest, longest footnote novel, and it manages, as unlikely as this may seem, to make of the gimmick something sweet and satisfying, though not especially lasting, perhaps. The book is as large as an epic, though not as deep, and achingly sincere in its ambition to somehow rival or complement or stand with the classic that provides its inspiration. What it knows of Moby-Dick, however, is pretty much what any college freshman knows – generalities about god and fate, implacable nature, and human pride – which makes its relationship with the other book somewhat soft and obvious. Sparkling metafiction this is not. Instead, what we get is old-fashioned historical romance, full of period incident, fine language, and scenic spectacle. The whole effect is congenial and mellow and not at all dependent on one’s knowledge of Herman Melville or any other particular author. Indeed, the less seriously one takes the book the easier it is to like.
The wife in question is Una Spenser, a spirited, up-for-anything heroine of generic cut and color whose love of life and sunny temperament will surely gratify book clubs nationwide and make for hours of refined, uplifting chat. More of a luminous force field with a name than a human being, Una inspires good will in the reader rather than recognition. She’s an ideal. We meet her in the middle of her story, in the midst of a difficult childbirth in a lonely Kentucky cabin. The scene is done in broad, familiar strokes meant to introduce Una as a figure of universal femininity. Sometime in the middle of her labor, a band of rabid male slave catchers arrive, search the cabin, then riotously depart. Women good. Men bad. Simplistic? You bet. When a fleeing slave emerges from under the bed and shows instinctive talent as a midwife – and when Una, returning the favor, helps the woman seek freedom – the sides are drawn even more boldly. We needn’t doubt for a second where virtue lies, or that Una will prove less than wholly admirable to a progressive modern audience.
This guarantee that in no way, shape, or form will Una disappoint, offend, or puzzle, and that she will seek after truth at every turn and do exactly what we’d hope we would do in regard to various nineteenth-century controversies, removes any hint of anxiety from the book, for better or for worse. Oddly, it’s mostly for the better, allowing us to blithely sail along, completely relaxed and only half-alert, as Una lights off on various adventures that add up to a tour of her period. She dresses as a boy and goes to sea, where she learns about whaling, visits exotic locales, and marries her first husband. Like Una’s father, a fuming religious fanatic so oppressive he drives his daughter from home, the husband is driven by inner demons that seem to feed off testosterone itself. And of course we know what happens to Ahab.
Una, however, has a talent for happiness. And for tolerance. They’re related here. During a sojourn in Nantucket, she acquaints herself with the Unitarian faith, drawn to its message of love and inclusion. A quilter, she discourses regularly on the simple joys of stitching cloth, of creating harmony from scraps. A reader, she quotes liberally from the poets. At one point she joins the circle of Margaret Fuller, an early feminist, and participates in a lofty discussion group, Conversations for Women. Art is discussed. Religion. Transcendentalism. Una becomes an abolitionist, an advocate for freedom in all its forms. It’s a beautiful life, but not without its sorrows, all of which Una reflexively bounces back from, too limber and diaphanous to crack.
The girl is perfect, that is. And sometimes perfectly boring, like the book. The realist within can take only so much of Una’s indomitable spirit. And yet, mysteriously, the book goes on, and one is inclined to humor its pretty progress rather than abandon ship. Partly, it’s the prose, which ripples on nicely after a shaky start, smoothly digesting dozens of names and faces and settings. Naslund knows how to pass the time in print – not the highest praise, but praise even so. Her confidence is infectious. So convinced is she of the virtue of her heroine and the import of her ideas that one stops resisting her with skepticism. Its easier to take the ride than buck it, to sit back and listen than try to get a word in.
What a curious feat: to carry a long novel by dint of sheer pleasantness and skillful hostessing. What Ahab’s Wife has to say about Ahab hardly matters. The book could do without him, in fact, substituting any grumpy old sea captain for Melville’s great creation. Naslund’s innovation, such as it is, lies in showing him young and whole and lovable, before amputation and insanity. His flaw, according to his unsung spouse? A masculine preoccupation with “evil” – but we already knew that, and so much more. Which is a long way of saying that Ahab’s Wife is not, after all, a footnote to Moby-Dick, but a diverting work in its own right, decidedly minor but charmingly determined to say something major, to stick up for itself.