Julie Gerstenblatt's engrossing debut novel, Daughters of Nantucket, explores the options for women--white and Black--in the mid-19th century while bringing a historical tragedy to life. Nantucket Island, Mass., has a fiercely independent identity in 1846. Long known as a whaling capital, it is also socially progressive, supporting abolition and educating people who were once enslaved. Metaphorical conflagrations blaze in the background in the days leading up to the great Nantucket fire: each of three female protagonists holds a burning secret and longs for a more expansive, authentic life. Eliza Macy's husband, a sea captain, has been away for years; until he returns with valuable whale oil, she faces bankruptcy. Meanwhile, she faces temptation when the sweetheart from her youth returns to town. Maria Mitchell (the only historical figure of the trio) runs the town's Atheneum library and museum but must hide her love for women. Meg Wright, a nine-months-pregnant Black woman, hopes to open a cobbler shop but fears for her children at a time of social divisions.
The action spans two tense weeks--one week before the fire through eight days after. The women's lives collide in two climactic scenes: first, a town council meeting where Eliza, voicing the same "separate but equal" ideology that reinforces school segregation, opposes the Wrights' business proposal; then, one July night, with the fire raging, Meg's labor begins--and help comes from unexpected quarters.
Gerstenblatt's eye for detail results in sultry historical fiction perfect for Sue Monk Kidd's fans; it ponders bravery, prejudice and what is worth fighting for. --Rebecca Foster, freelance reviewer, proofreader and blogger at Bookish Beck