Hannah watched him move, impressed by the ease with which he unfurled his long legs and arms. He propped himself up on one elbow and kicked off his boots, unencumbered by skirts or propriety. She could see now how it was on his boat, how his grace would be ballast amid the chaos of the hunt, the clamor of the chase. That his hands could tame a reeling line that might slice a man’s arm clear to the bone as it whipped free; how the dead calm of his demeanor would clear the men’s minds as they skimmed the surface of the sea as if in flight, clutching any part of the boat to avoid being tossed over and drowned while the whale surged forward through her dark world, not knowing she was bound to her attackers by the wound itself, the harpoon lodged in her. That her next ascent would be her last. – from The Movement of Stars –
Hannah Gardner Price is twenty-four years old and living on Nantucket as part of the Quaker community there. She has always been drawn to the Heavens, hoping to someday discover a new comet and be recognized by the King of Denmark. But the year is 1845 and she is a woman, expected to marry, have children, and let go of her dream of a profession. When Isaac Martin, a black whaler from the Azores arrives on Nantucket, Hannah’s life will grow more complicated. As she begins to teach Isaac about navigation, their uneasy friendship begins to blossom into something more and Hannah’s Quaker congregation takes notice. Torn between family, faith, desire and the pull of the stars, Hannah must make choices which will forever impact her.
Amy Brill’s debut novel is inspired by the life of Maria Mitchell, the first professional female astronomer in America. Brill sets her story in the Nantucket Quaker community in the mid-nineteenth century and succeeds in recreating a period in history which found women struggling against societal constraints. The book also explores the theme of racism, as well as the impact of rigid religious views. Isaac and Hannah both want more in their lives, to elevate themselves above the station to which they’ve been born. And it is perhaps that desire which initially draws them together.
I read this book as part of a three person face to face book club, and we all agreed the novel opens slowly and it took some time to engage with the characters. Brill concentrates on the technology of astronomy in the early pages, but by the time she launches into Part II of the novel, the characters begin to lead the story. One member of our Book Club chose not to finish the novel, while two of us did read to the end.
Hannah’s internal growth is interesting as her acceptance of her own sexuality awakens and she begins to understand how her life could be away from Nantucket. But, I think I was most drawn to Isaac, a young man living the harsh life as a whaler, struggling to achieve a place in society where blacks were not fully accepted. Although Brill draws parallels between the women’s suffrage movement and racism, I always felt that Isaac’s battle was the more difficult.
“One star is nearly always brighter than the other. But they change positions relative to the other; sometimes they eclipse each other as they make their orbits. Sometimes we can only see one or the other.”
In the dark, Isaac leaned close to her ear.
“But they are always together, moving through the Heavens.”
“Yes,” she said, or thought she did. – from Movement of Stars –
Despite a slow start, I appreciated the historical detail in the novel and by mid-book was fully engaged in the characters’ lives. Brill develops tension well, and it kept me turning the pages to find out how the conflicts would be resolved.
Readers who love historical fiction, and especially those interested in astronomy in particular and science in general, will find much to enjoy in The Movement of Stars.
FTC Disclosure: Many thanks to Riverhead Books for sending me this book for review on my blog, as well as sending copies to members of my book club for discussion.