Set in the middle years of the 19th century in Naiwayonk, Conn. (today’s Noank, within the town of Groton), Janice Clark’s debut novel is fabulous — in the word’s earlier definitions of “suggesting a fable” and “astonishing,” as well as its modern meaning of “terrific” and “awesome.” “The Rathbones” is both cleverly crafted and a beguiling read, limning (a favorite word of Clark’s) the saga of the Rathbone whaling family. Part fairy tale, part sea yarn (with nods to Melville and Hemingway), part Homeric epic, it is also a story of star-crossed love, spiced with Gothic Poe-like details and a dollop of farce.
In the 1770s, the family’s patriarch, the sinewy, single-minded whale-whisperer Moses Rathbone, begat upon 17 “worn wives” 30-some sons, who for four generations plied the waters off New England in search of the majestic sperm whales so numerous they could be seen from land. Moses’ sons and their sons and grandsons ruled the Atlantic coast for decades, their whaleboats faster, their navigational skills sharper, their harpoonry the stuff of legend. With his wooden spear, Moses faced the huge monsters alone, unerringly dealing a death blow to the whales who seemed to understand they were surrendering their oil to a worthy adversary. The Rathbones sold their harvest to hardy New Englanders who lined the Rathbones’ coffers with so much gold they couldn’t spend it all.
But now, in the summer of 1859, when the novel opens, the seas are no longer teeming with the enormous spermaceti, the Rathbones must sail farther to find fewer whales, and there are hints that in years to come, the search for oil will take place beneath derricks in prairie soil, not in the briny deep.
Told in the voice of 15-year-old Mercy Rathbone, Moses’ great-great-granddaughter, the narrative begins when one night she hears a dimly remembered singing voice and in pursuing it makes a horrific discovery, one whose implications and consequences she won’t fully understand until the novel’s end.
Her father, Benadam Gale, who had been recruited into the Rathbone family business by virtue of his superior whaling skills, (the potency of the Rathbone males having dissipated), has been missing for nearly 10 years on an ill-fated whale hunt, which has left his wife, Verity, to pace the widow’s walk of the Rathbones’ ancestral home night after night. Wearing a whalebone corset she tightens by removing one bone each year her husband is missing, Verity spends her days fashioning a model whaleboat of bone and baleen. She keeps an emotional distance from her daughter that seems to Mercy equal to the physical distance she has from her father.
Mercy has grown up in isolation, tutored in sea exotica and ornithology by her odd pale cousin, Mordecai, who inhabits the attic, alone with his treasures: a giant squid eye, taxidermied birds, a spider monkey’s skeleton, and two plaster busts of Socrates. He pores over family logbooks, charts of ocean currents, and maps of bird migration patterns, hoping one day to join his uncle Benadam on the open sea. He already knows the terrible secret Mercy discovers, and together they embark on an odyssey in search of her father, the great whales, and the truth about what became of her long-lost brother.
Clark, who grew up in Mystic, Conn., knows intimately the rigging of the (second generation) Rathbone ships: “thirty-seven sails, of finest No. 10 canvas, every studding sail, every staysail, skysail, and spanker,” as well as the difference between “a gam of narwhals or a shiver of nurse sharks.” She’s given Mercy acute sight, a “birthmark shaped like a ship,” and the love of the sea that filled her ancestors’ veins. Mercy’s “sometimes patchy tale,” woven from many fantastical threads, will provide landlubbers many a diverting hour following the fortunes of this salty family.
Kathryn Lang, former editor of SMU Press, is a freelance reviewer in Arlington, Texas.