Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund is the perfect book for the junior English project that starts with a work of fiction. It’s rich with historical as well as fictional characters and takes on several of the social issues of Antebellum New England and America—Transcendentalism, religion (in Unitarianism and Universalism), the rights of women, and slavery. Even so, it’s not a book that all high school students will be able to read. At nearly 700 pages, it’s much longer than the books most read. The old-fashioned writing style and the wood-cut images are delightful in that they pull the reader into the 19th-century New England of the novel, but it is a technique unfamiliar to many students.
For those of you who are good readers, do read Ahab’s Wife. You’ll find adventure as Una, the protagonist runs off to sea aboard a whaler, which sinks after a run-in with a whale (Yes, the book has a connection to Moby-Dick and Una is that Ahab’s wife). She survives the shipwreck, but must live with the dark secret of cannibalism. You’ll meet, if only briefly, many literary giants of the period—Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and even Nathaniel Hawthorne, disguised as one of his own characters (“The Minister’s Black Veil”). Any of them will make an interesting subject for later research as will Frederick Douglass, whom Una hears speak. There’s plenty of romance and heart break as well. Though Una seems a bit modern for her time (she easily accepts her neighbor’s homosexuality), she is a bold and kind woman at once, and has characteristics we all would like to emulate.