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by Sena Jeter Naslund
Perennial, October 2000
666 pages
ISBN: 0688177859

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Una, Ahab's wife, tells us of what her life before meeting her husband and after he dies.

At the age of 12, Una Spenser is sent away from her Kentucky home to live with her aunt, uncle, and cousin on an island near Nantucket. Her uncle is the lighthouse keeper and it is on this island that Una learns about the raw beauty of nature and feels the pull of the sea calling to her.

By age 16, Una has left the safety of her island home and goes whaling disguised as a boy. We watch as Una survives the destruction of her ship and we see how she survives weeks aboard a crowded rowboat while waiting to be rescued.

Una's life continues with her eventual marriage to Captain Ahab of the doomed Pequod of MOBY DICK fame.

During her life, Una meets many historical people like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, Frederick Douglas, and astronomer Maria Mitchell.

AHAB'S WIFE is a long book, about 666 pages. While sometimes the readers might feel that it plods on a bit, on the whole it is a wonderful story.

Although it's a little implausible that a woman living in the mid 1800's can meet and become friends with so many famous historical figures, and it might sometimes seems that Una goes through too many crises, you will see that the book ends up being the stronger for it. This novel is so much more than just an historical fiction, Sena Jeter Naslund has given a much needed nod to the brilliant writer, Herman Melville and his classic MOBY DICK.

Naslund shows us the previously unknown side of Ahab and his crew. We meet his First Mate, Starbuck's wife and the owners of the Pequod. We also get to learn more about some of MOBY DICK'S minor characters such as Elijah the prophet, Daggoo and Tashtego the harpooners, Pip the cabin boy, and Aunt Charity, sister to the Pequod's owners.

If you have read MOBY DICK you will take delight in meeting all of Melville's characters again. I smiled when Stubb and Flask entered the story and I was glad to finally meet Mary Starbuck and to catch sight of the reasons why her husband loved and thought so very highly of her. My favorite character from Moby Dick was Ishmael, and yes, he pops up up every so often in this book, as does the White Whale. In fact, I must admit I adore how Moby Dick first enters this story.

You don't have to have read MOBY DICK to like and value AHAB'S WIFE, but knowing Melville's classic will bring more to your understanding and appreciation of this novel.

Naslund is a splendid writer. She takes us into the mid 1800's and talks about slavery, religion, women's rights, and many of the other important issues of that century. In fact, I didn't interpret this book only as the story of Una's life, but rather as a story about the 19th century and how people lived then.

Naslund's style of writing might strike you as a little old fashioned and stylized, but don't let that stop you from diving into this book. You will quickly become comfortable with the technique and will be able to understand her. This tale in written very much in the tradition of Herman Melville.

As you read the book, you'll increase your enjoyment if you don't question everything about Una. Think of it more as Una guiding you through the 19th Century as seen by a her, as a girl and as a woman.

If you have read and know MOBY DICK you will love this book. I adored every page!

Reviewed by Sharon Katz, September 2002

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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