Minding the Light
As a New Englander who knows a bit about Nantucket’s whaling history, I was looking forward to Suzanne Woods Fisher’s continuation of her Nantucket Legacy series about characters involved in this profession at its height. Sadly, a few unfortunate choices sent Minding the Light crashing into the basement.
The story opens in the nineteenth century with Daphne Coffin waiting for the return of the whaling ship Endeavor, upon which her brother-in-law Reynolds – Ren – Macy has been sailing for the past six years. It’s been such a long journey that Ren has never met his six-year-old-twins, and the trauma and depression of being alone, shunned for marrying a lapsed Quaker and in financial difficulty has caused his wife Jane, Daphne’s sister, to become addicted to laudanum. Taking an unbeknownst-to-her-poisoned dose causes Jane’s sudden death less than a day after Ren’s return. Ren and Daphne then both struggle with ‘helping Jane’s garden grow’ and respecting her last wishes by continuing her legacy and, in Ren’s case, rejoining the church, righting the family’s financial situation, getting to know the children and putting aside any bitterness that results from Jane’s sudden death. So no biggie. Romance blooms between them, in spite of Daphne’s prospective and long-delayed romance with Ren’s greedy cousin Tris which her vain, unforgiving and selfish mother has long promoted. When a slave hunter comes for Ren’s first mate, the two of them bond over trying to protect the man.
We are provided a glimpse into the sixteenth century courtesy of the journal of Great Mary, an ancestor of Daphne and Jane’s. The journal, which details Mary’s experience with life in early Nantucket, was secretly given to Jane on her wedding day by their late father. Mary was one of the island’s first white settlers and she struggles heartily with fitting in with her married family. To feel useful, she takes up work in the family shop to their horror, and soon finds herself involved in a daring plot to help an abused slave leave the island.
Minding The Light has one thing going for it; it’s impeccably researched. That research is all that saves the book from being a complete waste of time. Instead of enlightenment or joy, the main sensation one feels while reading the book is one of painful awkwardness.
First of all, there’s an undeniably incestuous feeling to Daphne and Ren’s romance. Not only are they distant cousins, they’re in-laws. While it’s historically accurate that distant cousins (and occasionally brothers and sisters-in-law) married all the time in the 1800s, to the modern eye it’s uncomfortable to watch two people that closely interconnected fall in love. Also, it’s bluntly obvious from the start that Jane is going to pass away, so we spend the first chunk of the novel waiting for Jane to die so these two can get together.
While Ren, as a character is basically alright, Daphne’s earlier spunk evaporates as the novel continues and the romance blossoms, and the children are stock tropes (angry child and clingy child) until the last quarter of the novel. Tris and Daphne’s mother are far too obviously written as villains, though I will give the author credit for creating the subplot involving Daphne’s mother – the book’s other highlight is its attack on false Christians who don’t talk the talk or walk the walk but shrilly persecute and then hoard their riches. As for Jane, she’s a bloodless caricature of a good wife.
The poisoning plot exists to dole out easy lessons about turning the other cheek and forgiveness, and legal processes be damned for it. While this is a good thing in terms of the plot, the notion that the actual poisoner – who ends up killing multiple other people – gets away with it because Ren needs to be a Good Quaker about the situation is preposterous. Don’t the other people have angry relatives who want to seek their own redress? Adding insult to injury, the last twenty pages of the book are padded out with a flash forward that reiterates great chunks of information we already know, as seen through the now-adult eyes of the children..
The romance takes a long time to get going, but there isn’t much of a sense of light courtship to it at all. They make easy friends, but I cannot picture them as lovers, let alone a couple who stays together for their whole lives. I did like that their romance was built on mutual admiration and respect but there is no blood to their attraction.
And then there’s the painfully awkward way the book deals with race. Patience, a Wampanoag Native American who is called an “Indian maidservant” repeatedly in the narrative. She is (you can see this coming, can’t you?) silent, recalcitrant and efficient with a tragic backstory that hews far too close to the ‘stoic, silent native’ stereotype; she also embarks on a romance with Ren’s first mate, Abraham, who is the epitome of that racist stereotype of a black man sacrificing himself for the good of his white employer .
The book deals poorly with the racist thoughts surrounding Abraham’s skin color. Jane’s racist reaction to his existence (“There was no reason to doubt him, aside from the color of his skin”) is tushed and corrected by Ren’s response (“On a ship the crew is colorblind if the captain says so.”); they discuss the racism of the town but Abraham’s feelings about his blackness are never addressed; he just exists to give his all for his white boss and his white boss’ kids before having a romance with Patience that’s put so far in the background, one of our main narrators (Daphne) is unaware of it. Only when Daphne sees Abraham as a person she can admire and respect can she grow as a character, but slavery as a whole is treated as a thing for nice white people to fight against to prove they’re good people.
Back in the sixteenth century, Mary also has several lightning moments where she realizes the evils of slavery and tries to protest its existence. While these segments are more complexly written, the unfortunate comparison between the life of a privileged white woman and someone who’s just been sold into slavery is conflated. It’s all about Mary’s anxiety and Mary’s feelings about him; he exists as a walking moral lesson and philosophical thinkpiece (Mary, directly quoted: “What is this negro to me?”) – it’s uncomfortable at best and a horrendous writing choice at worst.
The Great Mary sections of the book exist to deliver simplistic homilies about humility, understanding Quakerism, balancing work and family life, motherhood, and the evils of slavery. They are pretty dry and not very interesting until the very last of them, when something incredibly ridiculous happens to resolve the plot and make Great Mary a hero. That plot point also solves Daphne’s main conflict in a way that’s childishly simplistic.
Ms. Fisher’s research is, as I’ve already said, excellent. I only wish it had been applied to a better novel than this one.