“Gerstenblatt's distinctive tale, a triumph in storytelling, celebrates the courage and tenacity of women.” —Booklist, starred review
Set against Nantucket’s Great Fire of 1846, this sweeping, emotional novel brings together three courageous women battling to save everything they hold dear.
Nantucket in 1846 is an island set apart not just by its geography but by its unique circumstances. With their menfolk away at sea, often for years at a time, women here know a rare independence—and the challenges that go with it.
Eliza Macy is struggling to conceal her financial trouble as she waits for her whaling captain husband to return from a voyage. In desperation, she turns against her progressive ideals and targets Meg Wright, a pregnant free Black woman trying to relocate her store to Main Street. Meanwhile, astronomer Maria Mitchell loves running Nantucket’s Atheneum and spending her nights observing the stars, yet she fears revealing the secret wishes of her heart.
On a sweltering July night, a massive fire breaks out in town, quickly kindled by the densely packed wooden buildings. With everything they possess now threatened, these three very different women are forced to reevaluate their priorities and decide what to save, what to let go and what kind of life to rebuild from the ashes of the past.
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ONE WEEK BEFORE THE FIRE
Monday, July 6, 1846
IN THE HEAT of summer, gossip spreads through Nantucket town like wildfire. Everyone on the island knows that, including Eliza Macy. Usually, Eliza enjoys the chatter of the women in town, the way her neighbors walk and talk with baskets of goods on their arms as they exchange tales along the busy, brick-paved and cobbled streets that lead to the harbor, where thousands of kegs of oil wait to be processed and shipped. Usually, she’s very much a part of that very chitchat. On any given Monday, she might lean in close over a barrel of grain at Adams and Parker as so-and-so says such-and-such about you-know-who. And although she’s not proud of it, Eliza has been known to follow a small cluster of ladies out of Hannah Hamblin’s candy store on Petticoat Row just to catch the end of a particularly juicy tidbit about a Starbuck or a Coffin, prominent families on the island, even if she hasn’t yet purchased the black licorice whips she came in for. But today turns out to be anything but an ordinary Monday, which is why Eliza isn’t out socializing in town.
The morning begins with a vexing conversation with her husband Henry in the kitchen of their stately Colonial home on Upper Main Street. “But, what do you mean, Henry? How can you possibly stay out at sea when we need you here at home?” Eliza asks. There is no answer. Eliza continues. “I just wish you would be clearer in your intentions. Less obtuse. It can be so very frustrating to be married to you!”
Well, not a “conversation,” exactly. How can one possibly be speaking with one’s husband when he has been off at sea for almost four years? Conversations exist mostly in her mind—and when she’s really annoyed, aloud—in a pretend dialogue with an absentee man. In reality, these conversations are monologues, long letters sent back and forth across the globe. Delayed worries and emotions so stale that by the time they get a response, Eliza’s concerns have moved on to something else entirely. In a letter, Henry will present a solution to a problem three months old—the leak in the roof Eliza has since gotten fixed, the seasonal cold that one of their twin daughters Mattie has recovered from—and think he is being helpful! And so Eliza thanks her husband of twenty years for his thoughtful ideas and lets him believe anything he says from the Pacific Ocean is meaningful to her everyday existence. Then she tells him what she really thinks from her kitchen. Alone.
The letter from Henry she receives this morning, by way of a sailor passing through to Nova Scotia, is one such missive. On folded parchment, in his slanting script, Henry informs Eliza of his new plans. She reads the line aloud to herself, imagining Henry’s deep baritone filling their home. “Although I promised to be back on Nantucket this summer, my love, this trip has been delayed due to unforeseen complications,” his letter says.
Eliza is trying to enjoy a cup of tea, while sitting at the small table tucked under the windows in a corner of their bright kitchen. The tea tastes bland and watery, for she is trying to conserve sugar. And tea leaves. She reaches to the wooden shelf on the wall beside her, locating the dark glass bottle of laudanum, and adds a dash or two of the powder into her china cup. She closes her eyes and holds the bitter liquid in her mouth for a second to let it cool before swallowing. There. The hot tea is surprisingly refreshing as she gulps it down, one quick sip after another, knowing the medicine will do the trick and ease whatever ails her. Nerves. Loneliness. Headache.
Heartburn. Three to four times a day, the dosage on the vial suggests. Better to take more than less, to ensure effectiveness. It’s readily available on the island, so Eliza can always get more at the apothecary when she runs out. I She reads the letter again.
“What unforeseen complications, Henry? Please do tell!”
Henry doesn’t specify, leaving her confused. What else is there possibly to do at sea but catch and kill whales, dismantle them by means of stinking, gory masculinity, and turn the massive mammals into profits? Isn’t that what the captain of a whaling ship does, for goodness’ sake? Grow his whiskers long and bark at his crew and risk life and limb in pursuit of oil?
He says only that he’s reached the port of New Orleans and not to worry.
A puzzle. Apart from the obvious annoyances this letter implies—that she and her children, who haven’t seen Henry for forty-plus months, will have to wait even longer for his presence—is the practical impact that delayed return will have. For Eliza Macy, on dry land, is out of household money. And, until Henry’s ship comes in, weighed down with its hundreds of barrels of oil, albeit liquid gold (God willing!), no more money is to be found. She has gotten used to trading candles for goods and services, but now she is even running low on them.
Eliza takes a break from her worries by calling out to her twins, getting ready for the day in their bedroom above the kitchen. “Girls! Breakfast! School!”
“Five more minutes, Mother!” one daughter calls down the stairs.
“Where is my satin hair ribbon?” the other yell-asks.
Sixteen-year-old identical twin girls. Eliza goes to the front hall where the acoustics are better for shouting, and aims her voice up the grand staircase. “Girls, you know I cannot tell your voices apart unless you are standing before me. I found a hair ribbon on the floor last night, but couldn’t see the color. It’s on my nightstand.”
Footfalls above. Then, “I don’t see it. Let’s just go to Jones’s Mercantile after school and buy new bows.” It’s Rachel. The girl peeks her head through the spindles in the banister.
“Oooo, that’s a lovely idea!” Mattie says, right beside her sister. “And then we can shop for summer dresses. Maybe something new for our upcoming birthday?”
“Maybe,” Eliza concedes. Although she knows there’s no way they’ll be doing that. She must keep her entitled daughters away from the mercantile! As the girls finish getting ready upstairs, Eliza heads into the kitchen to avoid hearing them. With a small knife, Eliza cuts an apple into very thin slices and divides them onto two china plates with a slice of buttered bread.
Until Henry’s ship comes in, their wealth is all theoretical, their profits floating in wooden barrels at sea. Eliza has no money on hand with which to pay for flour or cornmeal or music lessons. No coins for bolts of silk and wool to make party dresses for their sixteen-year-old twin daughters about to enter society. Just ink and a quill to write Henry’s name on a black line in a leather-bound book at the dry goods store and the doctor’s office, to record what the Macys owe and what they will pay back when his ship the Ithaca returns.
But when will the Ithaca return?
The rant that follows is also one-sided, as Eliza paces the kitchen alone, letter in hand, responding to Henry, her frustration causing her to speak much louder than she should. Keep your voice down, Eliza, she scolds herself, a reminder that Rachel and Mattie are probably listening in from the grand staircase in the hall.
Eliza takes a last sip of tea, her arms tingling with vague numbness caused by the powder she’s added, as her mind fills with a pleasant fog. She pops the apple core into her mouth and chews. The twin girls enter the kitchen, both starving, not understanding why they can’t have eggs and hash and corn fritters for their breakfast. After all, they have to walk to school, and they can’t very well learn while their stomachs grumble, can they? Eliza does her best to appease their appetites while not arousing their suspicion that something might be amiss.
But one quick glance between the twins—with identical pale blue eyes like their father’s—is all it takes for Eliza to know that they are alert to her every move. It’s probably too late for her to continue pretending all is fine when it isn’t. But keeping the girls calm and happy while their father is Lord Knows Where with a harpoon in his grasp has been her job for their entire lives, and she’s not about to shirk her responsibilities now. Better her girls be left in quiet darkness than to deal with the harsh light of day, that’s Eliza’s parenting motto. There’s only so much a girl needs to know.
And so Eliza lies. “I’m just so busy with house chores, I haven’t had a moment to get to the grocer. You’ll help me later with the last of the housework after school, won’t you? Then maybe we can talk about the mercantile for another day.”
The girls roll their eyes but nod that yes, they will. Then up and out they go. How Eliza has managed to raise such idle creatures, she’ll never know. At least Alice, the oldest of the three Macy daughters, has some ambition. But then again, Alice isn’t actually hers. She is Henry’s daughter with his first wife.
Eliza gathers together items for a package she’s been planning to send to Henry, adding a new note to the parcel. She tries to be measured in her response, although the point of her quill scratches through the parchment twice. She is frustrated by the miles and miles of time, oceans of time, between his words and her retort.
Eliza then spends the rest of the morning alone, washing dishes, changing and cleaning bed linens, dusting the wooden staircase, darning old stockings, and polishing the silver set that belonged to Henry’s mother in anticipation of having to sell it. It used to sit atop a beautiful mahogany sideboard, but Eliza sold that piece six months ago for cash to run the house. Now she keeps the silver in a cupboard. Out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes. That way, when she sells it soon, she won’t miss it.
A sparse and unfulfilling lunch follows, stale brown bread with thin jam in the silence of her now clean kitchen. In these moments she misses her former housekeeper, Mrs. Charles, terribly. For her elbow grease, certainly, but even more so for the pleasant conversation. Eliza reads Henry’s letter again over a second cup of tea. Then she sees clearly what she must do next, in response to Henry’s delay. She has no choice.
Excerpted from Daughters of Nantucket. Copyright © 2023 by Julie Gerstenblatt. Published by MIRA Books.