Life on a whaling ship is alternately difficult and delightful in Douthart’s debut novel chiefly narrated by one captain’s new wife.
The year is 1859, and the New England whaling town of Falmouth is home to many families with members at sea. Seventeen-year-old Celia Alden, who lives with her widowed mother and older brother, Edward, considers herself lucky not to be one of them. When Edward’s friend Capt. Caleb Jones begins to court her, Celia is quickly swept off her feet. Unable to stomach the idea of waiting behind while Caleb embarks on a whaling expedition, she decides to marry him—but only if he allows her to join him on his ship, Patience, for its three-year voyage. Once at sea, Celia quickly realizes the journey will be much more than she bargained for, as she endures both the dangers inherent to a whaling ship—from seasickness to shattered limbs—and the more intimate challenges involved with being the inexperienced wife of a relative stranger on a vessel with no privacy. Though the Patience’s voyage is captivatingly wrought, Celia’s characterization is shallow and sometimes unbelievable. Her quick about-face from apathy to love toward Caleb (and the evolution of their relationship thereafter) feels unearned, in part because she’s given few defining traits before their entanglement. Several supporting characters capture more interest, from Celia’s mother, a widow determined to keep her terminal illness hidden, to Domingo Arruda, a runaway slave now serving as third mate, to Capt. Jones, who questions the strict rules enacted by his Quaker father. It’s unfortunate that Celia herself lacks a stronger back story, as deeper characterization would have made her journey more compelling. Still, Douthart’s narrative, which benefits from extensive research into real-life ships’ logs and other primary source material, shines in the small details, like the “small silken buttons” on Celia’s wedding dress and the “two huge try pots” on the Patience, which stand waiting for the whale hunts to begin.
Though it’s difficult to invest in the heroine, this whaling ship narrative rights itself with meticulous research and attention to detail.