Saturday, May 13, 2023

Daughters of Nantucket follows three women during the island's Great Fire of 1846 and its aftermath

Nantucket’s Great Fire of 1846, a turning point in the life of the island and its residents, was a historical catastrophe that’s relatively little-known today. In her debut, Gerstenblatt tells an emotionally gripping tale from the viewpoints of three determined Nantucket women whose personal stories resonate as strongly as that of the terrible event they live through.

Meg Wright and her husband, Benjamin, a free Black couple, anxiously await the birth of their next child while aspiring to move their cobbler shop to a prominent spot on Main Street. Standing in their way is Eliza Macy, a whaling captain’s wife anxious about her family’s finances; her husband Henry’s years-long voyage was extended, the bank won’t approve another loan, and her son-in-law’s business competes with the Wrights’ store.

Eliza’s stance kindles a conflict with friend and neighbor Maria Mitchell, an astronomer and librarian at the Nantucket Atheneum who hides her attraction to another scientifically-minded young woman. Tensions emerging from racial prejudice and clandestine desires are already heating up when the fire breaks out, forcing everyone to choose what’s most valuable to them.

Nantucket stands apart for many reasons: thirty miles from the Massachusetts mainland, it’s grown prosperous through the production of whale oil (“sleeping liquid gold”), and with many husbands absent, the women are self-sufficient by necessity. The island’s widespread Quaker beliefs also grant women equal standing. The social milieu and geographical environment, from the bustling downtown to the Wrights’ multiethnic New Guinea neighborhood, integrate well into the plotline.

Wisely, Gerstenblatt doesn’t force the women into a contrived sisterhood but allows their individual personalities and principles to shine. Seeing the women through each other’s eyes—particularly Eliza, whose self-image contrasts with outsiders’ views—adds new facets to the character portraits. Engaging to the finale (which leaves one plot thread tantalizingly open), this novel would be a great book club choice.

Daughters of Nantucket was published by MIRA in March; I reviewed it from NetGalley for May's Historical Novels Review.  Maria Mitchell is a historical figure; the other two protagonists are fictional.

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