New Maine Times Book Review: Abbots Reach

Posted Wednesday, December 21, 2011 in Culture

New Maine Times Book Review: Abbots Reach


By Ardeana Hamlin.

Islandport Press, 2011.

279 pages, $16.95.

ISBN 978-1-934031-42-1.

Reviewed by William D. Bushnell


    When young Mercy Maude Giddings went to sea with her sea captain husband in 1872 aboard the merchant sailing ship "Boreas," she never dreamed she would uncover a family secret, save her husband's life, and become a national heroine, too.

     ABBOTT'S REACH is a masterpiece of vivid historical fiction, marked by historical accuracy, vibrant characters, and intricate, careful plotting, providing a colorful and exciting insight into Maine's seafaring families in the 1870s.

     Author Ardeana Hamlin lives in Hamden, and is an editor for the Bangor Daily News.  This is her second historical novel, following PINK CHIMNEYS (Tilbury House, 2003), which introduced many of the characters in this novel.  Clearly, Hamlin knows how to effectively tell a good story, creating a warm, sensitive, and romantic saga about complex family intrigues, shady pasts, peril on the high seas, a young couple's love, and the tests that young love must endure.

     Mercy, known as M, is a nineteen year old, pretty, bright, young woman from Stockton Springs, deeply in love with Madras Mitchell, a Searsport sea captain ten years her senior.  Unfortunately, her family history involves a loving grandmother with a sordid, unladylike reputation, which complicates M's relationship with her future in-laws.  However, M's mother and grandmother raised her well:  "They are wise in the ways of of the world.  They believe in the power of women.  They have taught me to think for myself."

     How M handles her fiance's grandmother, Augusta, a crusty old harpy with a few secrets of her own, is a pleasure to read, funny, wise, and caring, and M finally wins the approval of the old lady through the strength of her own character and some smart decisions.

     On the day of their wedding, after navigating touchy family feelings, M and Captain Mitchell set sail on a one-year voyage carrying cargoes from Maine, around Cape Horn, to Hawaii, a honeymoon trip that will teach the young lovers much about each other and their relationship.  When they arrive in Hawaii, however, the island paradise reveals that Madras has a Hawaiian secret he would prefer to keep hidden, but M will not be denied.  She is determined to discover the meaning of some curious clues to Madras's past.

     The sea voyages and married life are filled with rocks and shoals, with storms, ship damage, injuries, attempted mutiny, marital discord, some personal surprises, and a capable young woman emerging as a strong-willed, loving, devoted wife and competent mariner.  She also discovers that Madras is a good man, and she has no regrets about her marriage or her husband

  This romantic yarn is rich with the maritime history of 19th century sailing ships, the complexities of seaborne commerce, the adventures of a sea captain's wife at sea, Victorian attitudes of good manners and the proper behavior of ladies and gentlemen, Hawaiian culture and politics, the pain of childbirth, and the family structures of mariners at home and at sea.

     Hamlin's skillful and engaging portrayal of M and the challenges she faces give this delightful story a true sense of reality and satisfying romance.  The wives of sea captains in that era often went to sea with their husbands, even raising their children on the decks of ocean-going vessels.  For more excellent reading on the subject of women at sea in the 19th century, see the non-fiction books, HEN FRIGATES:  PASSION AND PERIL, NINETEENTH CENTURY WOMEN AT SEA by Joan Druett (Simon & Schuster, 1999), and FLYING CLOUD:  THE TRUE STORY OF AMERICA'S MOST FAMOUS CLIPPER SHIP AND THE WOMAN WHO GUIDED HER by David W. Shaw (Harper, 2001).

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