book review, historical fiction, history

Review: Daughters of Nantucket by Julie Gerstenblatt

Daughters of Nantucket by Julie Gerstenblatt follows three women during Nantucket’s Great Fire of 1846: Eliza Macy, the once-wealthy but now financially ruined wife of an absent whaling captain. Maria Mitchell, librarian and archivist at Nantucket’s Atheneum. Meg Wright, a free black woman who fights for her family’s right to own a business on main street and for the continued integration of the schools.

I’ll admit that I did not know about Nantucket’s history of fires, but it makes perfect sense given the amount of oil at their docks, candlemakers, structures built of wood, and the extremes of weather on the island 30 miles from the mainland. Julie Gerstenblatt starts Daughters a few days before the fire, each woman going about her daily life and struggles before the chaos ensues–although despite Nantucket’s liberal Quaker roots, there already seems to be racial and social strife. Eliza Macy, near bankruptcy, fights against the Wrights’ new shop from opening near her daughter and son-in-law’s shop. The pregnant Meg Wright stands up for her family and the free black community on Nantucket not just in terms of business ownership, but also for school integration. While the author notes that Meg is not a real historical figure, people in the free Black community there did fight for their right to school integration after the state of MA passed a law against segregation in schools. While Eliza and Meg are at odds with each other, Maria Mitchell is the measured middle.

Unlike Eliza and Meg, Maria was a real person. She was a learned, progressive woman who supported the causes of Abolition and Women’s Suffrage. She was also passionate about Astronomy and the author weaves into the narrative Maria’s search to discover a new comet. While much about her personal life is unknown (perhaps due to the burning of family papers during/after the great fire,) Gerstenblatt’s Maria remains unmarried not only because of her educational pursuits, but also because of her relationship with a woman.

Daughters of Nantucket was a fast and entertaining read, although I found Eliza’s 180 from bigot to enlightened to be a bit of a stretch given her previous behavior, as well as her socioeconomic standing in the community. I know the fire was a life changing event, but I just didn’t fully buy her fast turn around. Even though Eliza Macy is not likeable and perhaps only a fraction sympathetic, I still somehow found myself interested in reading her chapter POVs, which I guess it a testament to the author’s writing. Maria was likeable and sympathetic, except her interrupting the Wrights’ speaking time at the town hall meeting didn’t sit right with me. It also wasn’t fully believable to me that a woman like Maria would be close friends with Eliza, much less continue that friendship after Eliza’s bigoted views surfaced. Meg Wright was fully likeable and sympathetic, and the reader will certainly understand and feel for her.

Daughters of Nantucket will be released on March 14, 2023.