Thursday, August 28, 2014

Hen Frigates by Joan Druett

It all started with Moby Dick. My mother recounts the tale of my love affair with Moby Dick with great enthusiasm and frequency. How I brought it home from the library, my first real tome of a book and announced that I was reading it. I was probably eight or nine years old. I remember pulling it off of the shelf, a little intimidated, but mostly stirred by its heft and reputation. Here was a real classic- a grown-up classic. The closest I had come to the much-revered "canon" was my mother reading Little Women out loud to me, a cluster of memories that have bled into one great warmth over time. Moby Dick seemed the right kind of rite of passage for my reading life, a thing I was actively developing at that time, without necessarily being aware of it. Here is my mother's favorite part of the story, though. I disappeared upstairs with my library haul. There was silence for a time and then the sound of someone goose-stepping down the stairs. I walked past her, collected a dictionary, and then took myself back upstairs. For the next two weeks, she would find me laid out on any variety of surfaces around the house with the spine on Moby Dick cracked and the enormous family dictionary laid out beside. And that's the story of how I read my first big-kid classic, Moby Dick

This was going somewhere. Oh right, Hen Frigates. The great white whale was the beginning of a life-long fascination with all things maritime - pirates, sea critters, all things that sail, swim, and lap against the shore-line. Joan Druett's book on women who went to sea with their husbands in a time when they didn't even have rights on land is impeccably researched, well put together, respectful, and earnest. She uses an enormous amount of narrative pulled directly from the diaries, letters, and musings of the "hens" themselves and speculates only within the parameters provided by those first-hand accounts. I was so struck by the lives of these everyday women, bearing up or tumbling down in the most unpredictable of environments, in the best or worst of times, and I got to hear it in their own voices. Rough or refined, nagging or gentle, all so unique, with such varied bags of troubles. They are so human and wonderful and this book made me fall in love with history again for the reasons that originally brought me to it- common people. Ordinary people living out the lives given to them, loving and suffering and finding joy in the strange occurrences of lives that burn brightly in their own quarters and then go out. Ms Druett has ensured that for this fine and unlikely breed, the wives of merchant captains, there will always be a candle burning. I'll read anything this woman writes.

Shelf Status: Keeping to loan out to other history dorks
If You Liked Hen Frigates, You May Like: In the Heart of the Sea

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