Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Captain's Wife

For the last few years my sister has belonged to a book club that meets monthly, and she recently invited me to join.  My first meeting is tomorrow night; the book they are currently reading - one she suggested - is The Captain's Wife by Douglas Kelley.

I was excited to find that the book is a novel based on the real life of Mary Anne Patten.  I had read a one-paragraph version of her life in one of the Barbara Michaels books - I think maybe it was The Crying Child - and thought she sounded like a fascinating person.  Although the novel is of course fiction, it was well-researched and sticks as closely as possible to the known facts.  I enjoyed it immensely.

In 1856 Mary Anne Patten was 19 years old and married to Joshua Patten, captain of the clipper ship Neptune's Car, which left New York with both Pattens on board, headed for San Francisco via Cape Horn.  Mary had previously sailed around the world with Joshua on the same ship and expected a relatively uneventful passage to California.  Instead, the trip became a horrifying ordeal as the first mate turned mutinous and Joshua fell mysteriously ill just as the ship began the voyage around Cape Horn.  With Joshua unconscious and the first mate in the brig, petite Mary (newly pregnant and suffering from morning sickness) was the only person on board capable of navigating the vessel around the Cape in the teeth of some of the worst weather in recorded history.  This was in an era when women were considered useless aboard ships; the story of how she became the de facto captain (and doctor) of Neptune's Car is astonishing.

If the book has a fault, it's that some passages are a little too well-researched.  A few of Kelley's descriptions of exactly how the sailors adjusted the sails in response to the weather made my eyes glaze over, but anyone interested in how tall ships were actually sailed would probably find those details riveting.

The epilogue of the book concludes that Mary Anne Patten died very young.  What a waste.  What amazing things this woman might have done had she lived to a ripe old age.

"With that modesty which generally distinguishes true merit, Mrs. Patten begged to be excused from speaking about herself.  She said that she had done no more than her duty..." ~Interview in the New York Daily Tribune, quoted in the epilogue of The Captain's Wife.

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