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Classic book review: Ahab's Wife

Using a stray reference in "Moby Dick," a novelist creates the story of Ahab's wife.

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[The Monitor occasionally reprints material from its archives. This review originally ran on Oct. 21, 1999.] Sena Jeter Naslund may be one of the most ambitious writers of the 19th century. And that's saying a lot for a woman born in 1942.

Since she was a child, Naslund was annoyed by the scarcity of women characters in America's canonized literature. Her new novel, Ahab's Wife, grew from a stray reference in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," and it goes a long way toward correcting that imbalance.

Una begins her sweeping voyage by confessing, "Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last." Here are the tales omitted - not just from "Moby Dick" - but from the whole sea of classic literature that pushed women over the horizon. Surprise: They aren't just darning socks and waiting for their men to come home.

The cargohold of this book is packed with heartbreaking struggle and richly imagined characters, including wonderful cameo appearances from a host of historical figures. Una's tumultuous story contains enough tragedy and triumph for a dozen novels. This is the kind of epic you sink into and willingly get lost in. Yes – I can't resist – it's a whale of a book.

At the breathless opening, Una is alone and in labor in a frozen Kentucky cabin. While she waits for her mother to return with a doctor, a young black girl bursts in, closely followed by a posse of slave catchers. One of the men, a midget dressed as a wolf, sniffs around aggressively, but Una manages to hide the girl under her bed and make a friendship that lasts the rest of her life.

A few days later, she watches her young friend escape across the ice in a wonderful allusion to Eliza in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" – just one of hundreds of references to other books in this leviathan novel. (A fully annotated version of "Ahab's Wife" would be 50 pages longer, but even more fun.)


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