Joan Aiken Night Birds on Nantucket Puffin 1969 (1966)
Writing a successful novel is sometimes a little like inventing a recipe for a special dish. Take a dash of Jules Verne, add essence of Charles Dickens, several pinches of Herman Melville and season with adventure. Would that it was as simple as that. What you need is the main ingredient, the protein in the dish, and in Night Birds on Nantucket that is provided by the indomitable figure of Dido Twite.
When we last saw Dido she’d been lost at sea somewhere off the northeast coast of England, presumed dead. That was December, 1833. It is now ten months later, and the poor lass has lain in a coma after having been picked up by the whaler Sarah Casket. Like an amalgamation of Snow White and Moby Dick‘s Ishmael she is found in a wooden straw-filled coffin-like box on the other side of the world, north of East Cape on the Russian side of the Bering Straits (the East Cape — Cape Dezhnev since 1898 — was then popular with whalers). She has been looked after by young Nate Pardon all the while, and when she finally awakens it is to find it could be months before she is in a position to head back to England. And while she waits she finds that those on board the Sarah Casket are a very strange bunch indeed.
First there is Jabez Casket, the Quaker captain from Nantucket, who addresses everyone as “thee” and has a singular mission on his mind. Then there is his daughter, Dutiful Penance, who has chosen to remain below unseen from grief at the loss of her mother. What about the rascally Ebenezer Slighcarp, the first mate — what’s his game? And who is the mysterious woman Dido finds below decks who threatens Dido if her presence is revealed? As the whaler makes its way back to the North Atlantic Dido discovers the Captain’s obsession is with a pink whale, but it is not until they reach Nantucket seven months later (in April or May 1835) that Dido goes ashore to find that the story is not over yet.
It’s hard to review the third of the Wolves Chronicles without revealing too much of the story, but by referring to the previously mentioned three authors I hope to indicate how intricately Joan Aiken plots what many might regard as ‘only’ a children’s book. Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865), set at the end of the American Civil War, features a manned projectile being sent to the earth’s satellite. One of the proposals involves building a giant cannon to the plans of J T Marston, and the contemporary book illustration I’m sure furnished the inspiration for one of the main narrative devices. Meanwhile, Dickens (or indeed any of his contemporaries) wrote several plots about orphans and suchlike being badly bullied and manipulated by adults who should have known better; this is certainly the case with Dutiful Penance and Dido, both of whom who have lost at least one parent.
Lastly, Melville’s most famous novel Moby Dick is clearly a part model for Night Birds on Nantucket: a pink whale called Rosie Lee and the madly driven Captain Casket parallel the white whale Moby Dick and Captain Ahab, and a ship is indeed sunk by the action of the whale — though not in the way one would guess, let alone expect.
Amazingly there is even an assassination attempt on the British monarch in this novel, much like the young Queen Victoria who nearly lost her life by a bullet at the end of May 1842. The more one reads, the more one’s impressed by Aiken’s rich and inventive imagination. But without the central figure of the resourceful, irreverent, brave and intensely likeable Dido, who affects virtually everyone she comes in contact with, it would matter not a jot how cleverly the story is plotted. By the end of Night Birds the reader will be agog to know what happens to the young heroine next.
I’ve skated ever so fast through this notice because, just as with the previous books in the series, I shall be discussing people and places and incidentals and phrases in greater detail in a few related posts. Of course, there will be the inevitable spoilers … but then, you’re well prepared for that by now, aren’t you?
As it happens, Nantucket Island is part of the state of Massachusetts, and so very conveniently this novel is part of my Reading New England challenge as set up by Lory of the Emerald City Book Review blog: a year-long challenge that encourages readers to explore books set in New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.