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Three women’s stories intertwine around a historic fire in ‘Daughters of Nantucket’

Debut author Julie Gerstenblatt discusses fires beyond actual embers

Julie Gerstenblatt, whose debut novel, "Daughters of Nantucket," was released on March 14.Stephanie Ewens

Nantucket has held a special place in author Julie Gerstenblatt’s heart ever since her first visit at 8 years old. She traveled to a cottage on Polpis Road every summer and now, at 52, brings her children with her.

Gerstenblatt’s debut novel, “Daughters of Nantucket,” was released on March 14. She tells a fictional story based on the very real Great Fire of 1846 through the lenses of three women — Eliza, a whaler’s wife; Meg, a Black pregnant woman trying to open a business with her husband on Main Street; and Maria Mitchell, a fictionalized version of the celebrated astronomer.


In the novel and real life, the Great Fire of 1846 sparked from a clogged stovepipe in William M. Geary’s hat shop on Main Street at 11 p.m. on July 13. It was exacerbated by storehouses full of whale oil and wooden buildings close together, scorching over 200 homes and 36 acres of the town, according to Egan Maritime Institute.

Gerstenblatt, who now lives in Rhode Island, wore her treasured Nantucket basket necklace as she spoke with the Globe about examining the fire through female points of view, segregation as another type of flame, and learning what really matters when everything is set ablaze.

Q. How does describing the fire through women’s lenses add to the history already documented and understood about the event?

A. There’s a painting that someone did [of] the Fire of 1836, and it is men in top hats on Main Street, only men. And that just tells you everything you kind of need to know about the time period. There were women there, [but] they’re not even depicted in that [painting]. They created a fire brigade to help out during the Great Fire. Other than that, there aren’t a lot of accounts of women. There are accounts of them taking people into their homes and supporting in other ways. But part of the fun for me was really imagining. I know, as a woman, there’s core strength. When things get real, women can step up in major ways, and I wanted to push on that.


Q. Tell me about Eliza dealing with missing her husband for over four years at sea. How did you capture the grief of being a whaler’s wife?

A. My husband moved to Rhode Island for a job, and we stayed back in New York. My kids were in third grade and sixth grade. I became a full-time teacher at a high school in New York suddenly without day care or anyone to watch our kids. I was able to channel a lot of that into Eliza. And that’s the most similar thing I can think of to whaling. Of course, my husband was available by text and phone all the time, and I didn’t feel that removed from him, but it helped me tap into the distance that marriages can have in different ways.

Q. Tell me about the early references to fire, like when you talk about some townsmen metaphorically dropping a lit match on efforts for desegregation.

A. I think fire is a metaphor for a lot of things and the idea of passion, we talk about it like a fire burning. Racism is certainly a fire that we’re still seeing smoldering across the country, so I leaned in.


Q. How did you incorporate the segregation your characters face in the story?

A. As I read [historical documents], I realized there was a thriving Black community [in Nantucket in the early to mid-1800s] that I don’t think a lot of people knew about. Whaling captains of color were in charge of their own ships. There was so much diversity on the ships and freedoms on those vessels that were not happening on dry land. I knew that Meg had to be an equal voice in the book because we had to see it from her point of view.

Q. My favorite quote from the book is “Sometimes you need tragedy to remind you of one of life’s most important questions: What would you take from your home in a fire?” Tell me about that.

A. You get caught up in something that you think is important all the time. I think [it’s] the idea of, when there’s nothing left, what’s really the most important thing? And, of course, it’s other people. It’s the relationships we make. It’s the legacy of what we did, and the actions we took to make the world more positive. You collect all your stuff, and you think all that matters. What matters is who you surround yourself with.

"Daughters of Nantucket" by Julie Gerstenblatt was released on March 14.MIRA

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Julie Gerstenblatt & Serena Burdick. March 29, 7 p.m. Free. An Unlikely Story, 111 South St., Plainville.


Maddie Browning can be reached at