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A whale of good fortune
'Ahab's Wife' brings Sena Jeter Naslund epic success
NEW YORK (CNN) -- "Ahab's Wife" begins with white knuckles: Una Spenser, wife of "Moby-Dick"'s Captain Ahab, is freezing to death during a blizzard which has just killed her own mother. She is in the midst of giving birth. Despite her breaking waters, she unflinchingly deflects a posse headed by a dwarf on the trail of a runaway slave (who has hidden in Una's bed), who helps deliver Una's child, which dies at birth.
And that's just the first 10 pages.
The book's author, Sena Jeter Naslund, is in the midst of her own blizzard -- of popularity. "Ahab's Wife," freshly out in paperback from HarperPerennial, is a New York Times recommendation and is selling briskly; her story collection, "The Disobedience of Water," is also doing well.
"Ahab's Wife" brought Naslund the kind of response most writers long for. The 668-page epic was sought by six publishers and, after being published by William Morrow, went into five printings. It's been translated into German, Hebrew, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Naslund is overwhelmed.
"I just wrote the book I wanted to write," she says. "I had no idea that people would respond to it so enthusiastically, it's been amazing how many people have told me as I've traveled around that have told me that the book has actually enriched their lives. I'm extremely happy to have written what I wanted to write, and for many people to have found it meaningful." She's currently on a book tour to promote the paperback edition.
Journeys toward self-knowledge
Much of the novel's appeal lies in its characters' journeys toward self-knowledge, of bravery and cunning during bad times, and humor, love, and wonder in good ones. Mostly, however, the novel is a surprisingly sentimental description of the trickle-down of Enlightenment ideals to the masses, a progression away from the shackles of religious dogma to a more empirical, pragmatic approach to life. "Moby-Dick" wasn't just a story about a boat chasing a whale; "Ahab's Wife" isn't simply about Ahab's wife. Neither is a knowledge of Herman Melville necessary, says Naslund.
"It's important to know that a reader need not have read 'Moby Dick' in order to enjoy 'Ahab's Wife,' " she says.
In fact, much of "Ahab's Wife" takes place away from the denizens of the Pequod. As a child, Una is sent away by her mother to be raised by an aunt in Nantucket because of her insane father's physical brand of religious zeal. She meets two sailors who fire her mind with scientific knowledge. Donning a man's name and appearance, she joins the sailors aboard a whaler, and has the bad luck to meet a foul-tempered whale that sinks her ship.
After a harrowing period of deprivation at sea, laced with finely wrought accounts of cannibalism, dementia, and the dogged will to survive, Una and her sailor friends are rescued -- and passed off for transport to none other than Captain Ahab of the "Pequod."
Una will marry him and well, and will be able to enjoy him for a time before he meets the White Whale, but the novel centers upon her life, dreams, and relationships, which will continue through the twilight of the whaling industry and into the ominous preliminary rumblings of civil war.
Infused with optimism
Naslund has been a professor and writing instructor at the University of Kentucky for 28 years and has no plans to leave teaching for writing. In fact, she's expanding her teaching chores.
"I'm starting a new low-residency MFA Writing Program at Spalding University in Louisville, which will open in October 2001," she says. "It means that adults from all over the country can come here for a short period of time (10 days) and correspond with a mentor, which is the best way to teach creative writing. People come from all walks of life to be in programs such as this one."
The author sees a complementary relationship between the act of writing and that of teaching it. "I have basically a positive approach to both. I'm kind to myself when I write, at least the first draft. Sometimes I say out loud, 'Good, you did it, you wrote a sentence, now write another.' Through this encouragement, I think others can write at their best. ... My approach is to celebrate the imagination, and to try to liberate it rather than to censor it."
This stalwart optimism infuses her work. "I want to suggest that we can overcome our losses, and that our response can be a creative rather than destructive one," she says. "In 'The Disobedience of Water,' the main character (a woman reviewing loves lost and missed) is a person who is reconstructing her life.
"I see 'Ahab's Wife' as offering an alternative vision to "Moby-Dick," which ends tragically," she continues. "Ahab lost his leg, and becomes obsessed with vengeance, backward-looking rather than forward-looking. I try to suggest a different vision."
The future seems bright with possibility for the next Naslund novel, even if its subject matter is dark. "I'm writing a novel set in Birmingham, Alabama, where I grew up, a civil rights novel, tentatively titled 'Four Spirits.' It's in the shadow of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963," Naslund says. "It's somewhat autobiographical, because I was there, and was aware of this and other tragedies precipitated by racism. I don't think there is a big American novel on the civil rights struggle in Birmingham. ... I feel very called to work with that material, and that's what I'm doing."
Review: The perfect whale
University of Kentucky
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