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The Sea Captain's Wife by Beth Powning

abstract:MyAltTextHere “Often, she paused on the porch and looked out at the blue line of Nova Scotia and the silver gleam in the southwest where the bay widened to the Gulf of Maine: the sea spread before her, thundered in her ears; and sometimes she loathed it, since Nathaniel was at its mercy. At other times, she closed her eyes, tossed back her bonnet and breathed deep of the world’s size.”

I am a sucker for historical fiction, throw a bit of swashbuckling romance in there and I’m hooked. When I imagine sea voyage back in the 1800’s I must admit to conjuring up images of impressive vessels smashing their way across the oceans, with grandeur and glamour that can’t possibly of existed. The real stories, like the one that Beth Powning relates in her latest novel The Sea Captain’s Wife, showcases the more realistic side to seamanship - illness, solitude, risk, and the heartache that inevitably follow a life amongst the waves.


January 05, 2011
MyAltTextHere “As I researched The Sea Captain’s Wife, I stood on the steps of our 1870’s farmhouse and looked southwards towards the Bay of Fundy. The wind carried a hint of salt, and I thought of the nineteenth-century women whose sons and daughters, husbands and fathers went to sea. They may have stood on these very same steps, their minds carried by the salt wind to the grey, empty waters, and the inconceivable size of the world.”

Azuba Bradstock is not fulfilled with her life as a sea captain’s wife. Left for years at a time, treasured like a pet in a gilded cage, she awaits the return of her husband with baited breath. She longs for the adventure and exotic places that he takes for granted, and to be the wife she always imagined – the person by his side. After a family tragedy and a story of scandal, Azuba gets her way, and they embark on a journey to London. It is not as she imagined, Nathaniel turns hard and cold as the scandal, that Azuba cannot shake, comes between them. Pushed aside by her husband Azuba tends to their little girl, Carrie, and tries to make a life on board a ship where the crew and captain think of her as bad luck.

“On the massive ships, it was a man’s world, a place of rank, command, obedience. Women had no role, were even considered bad luck. They were bereft of their parlours, kitchens, churches, gardens. As they stood on the decks of the great ships being slowly towed from harbours, they waved goodbye to family and friends; sometimes, even, to their own children.”

MyAltTextHere Azuba occupies her mind by teaching herself how to sail, and the uses of the medicine chest. She longs to be a useful part of the ship, rather than a burden it has to carry, but her thoughts and actions are restricted by the ships etiquette. Slowly she regains the trust of Nathaniel, who has become her captain as well as her husband. Powning uses such subtlety when describing life onboard the ship, the routine, the interactions, the terror, and the triumphs. She highlights the savagery that always exists just below the surface, of both life on a ship, the relationship between husband and wife, sailors and their captain.

“It was the voices of women that made me want to write The Sea Captain’s Wife. I plucked a book from a library shelf called Women at Sea in the Age of Sail. Until that moment, I had no idea that thousands of women went to sea with their captain husbands. Or that, onboard square-rigged ships, they cooked, did laundry, gave birth, administered enemas, taught children, even navigated.”

Beth Powning relates to Azuba’s character as they both feel the isolation of the Canadian wilderness. Powning is originally from New England, majoring in creative writing at the Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, New York. She moved to Canada after falling in love, and bought a farm with her husband in New Brunswick. She decided she would be an author at the age of eight, and The Sea Captain’s Wife is her 5th novel to date. Whelan’s Cove, Nova Scotia is Azuba’s home; she is torn between the love of her birthplace, and her dream to sail with her husband to new places. Even in the 21st century I can relate to this dilemma, leaving the people you love and travelling is something most people have to try at least once. In Azuba’s case there was always a sense of danger to consider alongside that of adventure. Powning is often praised for her descriptive power, lyrical writing, and her ability to evoke emotions within the reader using her well-rounded and honest characters.

“I pictured a woman clutching an icy rail with mittened hands. She gazes at icebergs, even as it occurs to her that, at home, the sweet peas have begun to bloom. I longed to know what she really felt. Then Azuba was born -- the woman who would whisper her truth.”

Azuba is definitely a heroine to aspire to; through starvation, pregnancy, and pirate attacks she proves her worth in a world where she has no place. Battling her own fears, societies conformity, and her husbands doubts she becomes a woman in her own right. This story is captivating; it is an exciting point in history where a woman’s voice is not often heard, Azuba fights both the seas and an anti-feminist society. Powning manages to extract a powerful character from her research that allows her to express fear, loss, hope, passion, and obsession, in a literal and entertaining way. When reading this book I feel like I am the one on the ship crashing around Cape Horn, facing death, clinging to a rail and wishing for survival.

MyAltTextHere “A wall of grey-black water towered ahead, crested with a white fringe. Traveller, even laying on her lee as she was, rose to meet it. Azuba was pressed back against the deck house wall as the bow lifted. The ship breasted the wave. From the swirls of mists and spray came another ship. It was heading directly towards them, flying before the wind, so close that Azuba could see the men on her decks waving their arms, mouths open in horrified, soundless roars.”

The Sea Captain’s Wife is an enthralling story, that leaves the reader wanting more. I will be waiting for Beth Powning’s novel with baited breath.

Beth Powning's Website

The Sea Captain's Wife Mini-Site



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