Mercy Rathbone, fifteen years old, is the diminutive scion of the Rathbone clan. Read more...
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Mercy Rathbone, fifteen years old, is the diminutive scion of the Rathbone clan. Her father, the last in the beleaguered dynasty, has been lost at sea for seven years - ever since the last whale was seen off the coast of Naiwayonk, Connecticut. Mercy's memories of her father grow dimmer each day, and she spends most of her time in the attic hideaway of her reclusive uncle Mordecai, who teaches her the secrets of Greek history and nautical navigation through his collection of specimens and moldering books. But when a strange, violent visitor turns up one night, Mercy and Mordecai are forced to flee the crumbling mansion and set sail on a journey that will bring them deep into the haunted history of the Rathbone family, and the reasons for its undoing.
As Mercy and Mordecai sail from island to island off the Connecticut coast, encountering dangers and mysteries, friends and foes, they untangle the knots of the Rathbone story, discovering secrets long encased in memory. They learn the history of the family's founder and patriarch, Moses Rathbone, and the legendary empire he built of ships staffed with the sons of his many, many wives. Sons who stumbled in their father's shadow, distracted by the arrival of the Stark sisters, a trio of "golden" girls, whose mesmerizing beauty may have sparked the Rathbone's decline.
From the depths of the sea to the lonely heights of the widow's walk; from the wisdom of the worn Rathbone wives to the mysterious origins of a sinking island, Mercy and Mordecai's journey will bring them to places they never thought possible. But will they piece together a possible future from the mistakes of the past, or is the once great family's fate doomed to match that of the whales themselves?
Inspired by "The Odyssey" by way of Edgar Allan Poe and "Moby Dick," "The Rathbones" is an ambitious, mythic, and courageous tour de force that marks the debut of a dazzling new literary voice.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-05-20
- Reviewer: Staff
A teenager comes of age and grapples with the heavy burdens of family secrets against the backdrop of the 19th-century New England whaling industry in this beautifully written, playful, and intricate debut novel. Fifteen-year-old Mercy Rathbone’s father, a whaler, has been away from home for nearly a decade, but Mercy holds out hope for his return. She happens to witness her mother coupling with a stranger, a scene that prompts Mercy and her cousin Mordecai to flee their home in panic. They embark on a journey of discovery that leads her to the truth about her missing brother and the rest of her family (the inclusion of several family trees with ever-spreading branches is a nice visual companion to the prose). Mercy’s travels alternate with flashbacks depicting her ancestors, beginning in 1761, with Moses, the first Rathbone, who had the gift of spotting a whale before any sign of it was visible. Clark creates evocative descriptions (a whale’s carcass is a “diminished hulk of patched black and rotted gray”), making her images and encounters between people especially vivid. Agent: Mollie Glick, Foundry Literary + Media. (Aug.)
The fall of the house of Rathbone
Take a deep breath before you start reading The Rathbones, and renew regularly. You’ll need it to navigate the story itself, which is mesmerizing, but also for the unexplainable bits: the attempted rape which probably wasn’t, the silent fate of unnumbered baby sisters lost in a family that prizes sons, and the powerful spiritual bond between whales and their pursuers. If that sounds confusing, rest assured that putting these pieces together turned out to be far easier than trying to put the book down—and was an enthralling exercise all the way.
Standouts in a large cast of characters include the novel’s young narrator, Mercy Rathbone; her uncle, Mordecai; and her missing brother, Gideon. Their stories begin during the 19th-century decline of the whaling industry and the subsequent fall of the Rathbone family, whalers through and through. It all harks back to the mid-1700s, when the Rathbones, living in a huge house built to separate the sexes, pursued the patriarch Moses Rathbone’s quest to catch thousands of sperm whales. The family men excelled in their chosen mission (and mission it was) of bonding with the whale population that was then teeming off the Connecticut shore. Behind the scenes lurks the uncredited influence of the forgotten Rathbone women. Only when Moses’ oldest son Bow-Oar impatiently places profit above mysticism do the family fortunes begin to fail.
Janice Clark, a Chicago writer and designer, not surprisingly grew up amid the whaling culture of Mystic, Connecticut. Her book is vastly appealing in its primal reach back to the Odyssey and Moby-Dick. The Rathbones will draw in men and women alike, and at its close, many of those readers may well be inclined to take another deep breath—and start all over again.