Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A Tale of Two Stories

On my eighteenth birthday, my dad presented me with a unique gift; an ominously large book called Ahab's Wife. He had heard about the author on NPR, thought the book sounded right for me, and wrote a heart-felt inscription on the inside cover. I set out to muddle through what I assumed would be a Moby Dick-style saga, but was pleasantly surprised by the wonderfully descriptive prose written in the voice of Captain Ahab's "girl-wife," Una. I immediately fell in love with her spirit, her adventures, and the characters that Sena Jeter Naslund brings to life through her rich descriptions. Ahab's Wife distracted me at exam time in college, entertained me during summer beach trips, and comforted me when I needed an escape from life. By the time I took the volume to Vermont with me, I was using a rubber band to hold the pages in.

When POSSLQ and I moved in together, the book got lost for a while. In the end, we determined that it got thrown away in a bag that looked like trash, but was actually our "in between houses" stash. Don't ask me what else was in that bag, none of it was as important as my worn, well-loved, and well-travelled book.

For my twenty-third birthday, my dad presented me with a unique gift; a brand new copy of Ahab's Wife. The new inscription is a little sappy, but very sweet, and the gift was so thoughtful. Over the past four years, this copy hasn't gotten to travel as far, but has been read so many times that the binding is starting to show serious wear, and has split completely around my favorite passages.

After my most recent reading, I decided it was time to give Moby Dick another chance. I vaguely remember studying the Cliff's Notes for it in high school, but went to the library to search out a copy, convinced I would find a reflection on Captain Ahab as enjoyable and richly engaging as Una's voice. What I have found, instead, is a heady, verbose story that I think may eventually be about a whale (I'm only half way through), and only passing mentions of the characters I've come to know so well - Mr. and Mrs. Hussey of the TryPots Inn, little Pippin, and, of course, the girl-wife herself.

I suppose the great chase scenes are still in front of me, and I know I should value the symbolism and character studies of Moby Dick, but I can't help but prefer Ahab's Wife. Throughout the course of the novel, she meets many historical figures, some of which, ironically, were Herman Melville's contemporaries. Ishmael visits the same cities and streets as Una, meets the same people, but they are ultimately unimportant to him, where every event in her life deserves attention and analysis. Maybe I identify better with her simply for that fact, or maybe I take notice and analyze every facet of my life because I've been so affected by her story.

In retrospect, I should have been suspicious of a novel that I borrowed from the library, printed in 1979, that looks pristine next to my worn copy of Ahab's Wife. But I got to know Ishmael while reading Una's story, and though he wasn't my favorite character, I want to give him the benefit of the doubt, hear his tale, and listen for whatever quiet wisdom he may have for me.

No comments:

Post a Comment