One of our book club participants asked me a blunt question this session.
"Why did you choose this book?"
Fair enough. I don't know why. We hosted Janice Clark for the hardcover edition of The Rathbones and I actually didn't feel compelled to read the novel then. I am certainly not well versed in Melville and Homer and Poe and Hemingway, all of whom are apparently referenced in the story. In fact, one of the other attendees asked me to fill them in on the story's connection to Moby Dick and I could not.
"We'll have to wait for this book to either be used by a lot more book clubs, or to be picked up for course adoption before I have the material we need," was my answer.
The story begins with Mercy Rathbone, who lives with her mother Verity and her "cousin" Mordecai. Her father has been at sea for years, along with her brother. Her mother walks the widows' walk outside and makes everything out of whale bones. Mordecai is holed up out of sight in an attic where he works he works on his various interests. She knows very little about her family, but a mysterious intruder forces her and Mordecai to flee their home and set out on a journey of their identity.
They eventually arrive at the Rathbone family home, where they learn of the patriarch Moses, the man who could spot a whale before it was actually in view, and with the help of 17 wives (many of whom left, exhausted), sired an army of whalers, and grew to great fame, or should I say infamy?
As Mercy fills in her family tree, we learn of many mysterious happenings - of brutal deaths and rapes and the disappearance of just about all of the female progeny. The women brought into the family, sometimes brought in bound, are baby making machines, and the sons are no more important; they are just replaced with new Rathbones while available, and after that, hired hands. Why at one point, the children are simply named for their ship positions - Bow Oar, Second Oar, and so forth?
Does Mercy learn the secrets of her family and come to terms with herself? I'd have to say yes, there are numerous secrets revealed, but this is the kind of book where the journey is much of the joy. One of Clark's biggest strengths is her world building, and the descriptions of people and places are nothing short of fantastic. Several of the attendees remarked that they couldn't believe that this was set in New England, let alone the United States.
To my thinking, The Rathbones is a genre mash-up of fantasy and historical fiction. Janice Clark grew up in Mystic, Connecticut, seeped in whaling lore. She also used the resources of the New Bedford Whaling Museum as a starting point. But the final creation is not 19th century Connecticut. It's a wholly realized unique creation as distinct as Middle-Earth, Discworld, or Pern. I was reminded a bit of Susanna Clark's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Morrell as I was reading it, and my next thought was had that book been 400 pages instead of 850, I might have finished it.
So what did the book club think? It was a divided house, which of course always makes for an interesting discussion. Several folks found it interesting, more so at first, but got bogged down in the middle. Several others absolutely loved the book, with Lily noting that she liked the book club because it got her to read books she'd never pick up on her own, and in this case, she wound up really liking the results. In terms of atmosphere, it reminded her of Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, though both Kent and Clark used the atmosphere in very different ways, and I would argue that while both were genre mash ups, Kent used thriller elements rather than fantasy to tell her story. And Juli compared it to reading The Tiger's Wife.
Several attendees noted that it was a pleasure to read just for the writing style, a fanciful yarn, as Callista noted. But others mentioned that there was an allegory going on here too. Certainly there's an environmental story going on here. The whales are plentiful, they are heavily fished and in particular, when one Rathbone captures a whale that Moses would say is too small to keep and passes it off anyway, that is the beginning of the family's descent.
But it appeared that the story was in some ways that of the Industrial Revolution as a whole, which of course was going on at this time. Moses the capitalist, building his factory. The family were almost cogs in the machine, bred for the whaling industry. Just think - one wore out, he (whaler) or she (breeding more whalers) would simply be replaced. As one attendee noted, Moses was a control freak, sort of the historical version of the efficiency expert.
So one thing I mentioned is that I wondered how the book club would have felt about this book had it been written by a man. There's an awful lot of mistreatment in the book, and more than a few cases of rape. I got some blowback on this, but I still content that a man would eventually get heat for this, and you know I'm right so it's not worth arguing about.
All in all, a very successful voyage for The Rathbones, and if it I had one suggestion, it might be to expand on the Vintage reader's guide to be more than a short "questions for discussion" section. This is not always the case but the group was clamoring for more information, not just about the history of whaling (which we could have easily researched) but especially how The Rathbones plays with its literary source material. As I noted to Joyce, I'd love to say I had time to read Moby Dick and the Odyssey to prepare for this discussion, but I did not.
What's up next? On Monday, January 5, we discuss Daniel Alarcón's At Night We Walk in Circles. Then on Monday, February 3, our book is Doc, by Mary Doria Russell. I should note that Mary Doria Russell is coming for her new novel, Epitaph, in March. As Jason explained to me, Russell writes her books in pairs, so it makes much sense to read her first Western in preparation for her second.