Totems on Nantucket

Common Loon or Great Northern Diver

Otto Coontz: The Shapeshifters
First published as Isle of the Shapeshifters
Magnet/Methuen Teens 1988 (1983)

The Great Northern Diver, also known as the Common Loon, has a piercing call rather like a crazed laugh, which has given rise to the saying as crazy as a loon. It’s also a creature of three elements — water, earth and sky — while a distinctive band around its neck gave rise to the Native American legend of the Loon’s Necklace made of shells. The Loon even features on Canda’s dollar coin. All of which helps to explain why this diving bird holds great significance in this fantasy set on Nantucket Island off mainland Massachusetts.

Theda Benedict’s father and stepmother are involved in a popular tv series — he’s the scriptwriter, she the principal star — and they have been invited to Nantucket during June to meet some fans. Theda (‘Theo’ to her friends) has begun her holidays and so is able to travel with them to the island, only to discover that she feels a connection with the place even though she’s never been there before.

The invitation, it turns out, is anything but fortuitous, and is merely a prelude to conflict and disturbances that will affect everyone living on the island. Issues surrounding corporate development, environmental concerns and past injustices build gradually to a climax that almost everyone is unprepared for: for Theo, this appears to be connected with the well in Witch Wood, for everyone else all four elements seem to conspire against them.

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Tall tales and tropes

whaling-ship
19th-century whaling ship (credit: http://inupiaqadaptationrecovery.blogspot.co.uk/2010/04/this-whaling-ship-is-in-full-sail-as.html)

This is the last of the posts I’d planned on Joan Aiken’s Night Birds on Nantucket, the third in the series commonly known as The Wolves Chronicles. I’ve previously posted about the personages in that novel and on the voyages of Dido Twite, and also given an update on her colourful language. Now I’d to draw your attention to the motifs I’ve noticed in the series that occur in this installment, motifs that pop up elsewhere in her other fiction but which become increasingly plentiful in subsequent Dido Twite chronicles.

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More Dido lingo

whale-ships
19th-century whalers processing whale blubber

In “Croopus! A Dido Twite Lexicon” I listed some of Dido’s colourful language in the Wolves Chronicles, some of it genuine — variously Cockney and from other parts of Britain — and some of it Joan Aiken’s own invention (which, oddly enough, often seemed perfectly genuine). There undoubtedly were the inevitable omissions and, as further novels in the series are read, there’ll naturally be additions. Here’s the first of what will probably be part of an ongoing exercise (expect more addenda as time goes by) listing terms used by Dido in Night Birds on Nantucket. Continue reading “More Dido lingo”

Of people and pink whales

19th-century whaler
19th-century whaler attacking a Right Whale around 1860 (public domain)

Joan Aiken’s Night Birds on Nantucket is the second of the Wolves Chronicles to feature the irrepressible Dido Twite and, as is becoming increasingly apparent, features more and more of the author’s virtuoso play with themes, scenarios and words, not to mention sheer fun! This post follows the pattern of my previous responses to the series with a discussion of particular (and often peculiar) aspects of the volume already reviewed. As always, spoilers follow …

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Globetrotting with Dido

sarah-casket-chartIn a previous post I mentioned that in Night Birds on Nantucket our young heroine Dido Twite would go a-voyaging from her native London all around the world. In this, the third instalment of the Wolves Chronicles, she manages to cross the equator four times — though two of those occasions were while in a coma. In this post I intend to look at the places visited by Dido, while further posts will focus on people, themes and Dido’s use of language.

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Blow me, it’s Dido again!

J T Marston's Cannon, from Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon
J T Marston’s Cannon, from Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865)

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.

Continue reading “Blow me, it’s Dido again!”