"The bones tell their story," writes Janice Clark--the story of The Rathbones. The bones, sea, whales, crows, a family, a little girl, a missing brother: these are all part and parcel of Clark's amazing, fabulously entertaining debut novel, set in Naiwayonk, Conn., in 1859 and narrated in large part by the "small and dark" 15-year-old Mercy Rathbone. It's the tale of her cold Mama, Verity; her father, Benadam, gone these 10 years at sea whaling; her uncle Mordecai--and the bones of which most everything in Mama's room are made, as well as the "boat of bone" she's been shaping for years.
The Rathbones live in a huge mansion, a fantastical edifice like something out of Lemony Snicket, "built like a seaworthy ship," in sight of the sea, room after room after room. Mordecai lives in the attic, old seaweed hanging down from the inside of the roof, the upside-down hull of a brig. Then there are Mercy's pet crows, who can lift her up by her braids, as they do one night to save her from the "man in blue" who's sleeping with her mother. The next day, Mercy and Mordecai set sail in a small skiff for Mouse Island and their odyssey on the "route of the spermaceti" begins. Waves and rocks break up their boat; they are saved by the women of the island, some of the 17 wives of Moses Rathbone, whaler extraordinaire.
Moses... if he went away from the sea, "it pulled him back." He would swim with whales, listen to their beating hearts, their songs. He could see and identify a whale from miles away. He would leap onto a whale's back, like Captain Ahab, ride him, eye to eye, become one with him, then strike deep. His crew were Rathbones, on and on, boys and men--Harpooner, Boatheader, First Oar--borne by the women, year after year. But where were the girls? What were those "curls of dark hair" tossed into the sea? And what is significant about that strange song Mercy keeps hearing, the one about the "Mother who murdered me?"
Little by little, Mercy completes her family tree and her story, until in the end, "that which remained when all else had been hacked away and buried away, [was] reduced to irreducible bone, quiet and still." --Tom Lavoie
Shelf Talker: Taste the sea's salt spray and hear the crows' caw in this dreamlike, lushly gothic debut novel, a New England kin to Absalom, Absalom.