Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Sea Captain's Wife by Beth Powning

In The Sea Captain's Wife, Azuba desperately wants to join her husband Nathaniel on his ship. However, he has other ideas and leaves her at home while he goes on a lengthy voyage. Upon his return, he learns of an unfortunate incident and realizes that he has little choice but to take Azuba with him on his next trip. Azuba has no idea what's in store for her. Rough waters, horrific storms, pirates, mutiny, starvation; all are featured in this harrowing tale of life on the high seas.

I loved this book. Written entirely from Azuba's point of view, the story really gives the reader a sense of what life was like as a sea captain's wife in the 1860s. From the loneliness of being left at home to travelling the dangerous waters on a ship, we see Azuba's life and know how she's feeling every step of the way.

I loved Azuba. She had this romantic notion of being a sea captain's wife and being on board the ship. It seemed that no matter where she was, she met some pretty tough challenges, yet she persevered. Even though it's very much Azuba's story, she wasn't the one that stuck with me long after the book. It was Nathaniel that I worried about. Azuba adapted to changes as they came; Nathaniel life was on the water. I wondered how he fared in the end.

All of the nautical details were extremely interesting: mizzenmast, gig, gamming chair, sails and so on. I also loved all of the descriptions of life at sea. I think I had the same misconceptions that Azuba had about living on a ship. I know better now. I'm sure Powning did massive amounts of research in order to get the details down. Well done.

I loved being reminded of a simpler time with regards to communication. Does anyone write letters and send them by snail mail anymore? I know I don't. I can't imagine writing a letter to someone with the knowledge that it's going to take months to arrive at its destination. The letters between Nathaniel and Azuba took months to arrive as did Azuba's letters to her parents. Nowadays if someone doesn't get our email within seconds, we know something is wrong.

A glossary has been included at the back of the book. Surprisingly I knew a few of the words listed: crazy quilt, guano, hardtack, phrenology, sextant, and a few others. I wish I had read this section before I had started reading, though. It could have been helpful with some of the nautical terms as I read the story. As it was, I didn't know it was there until I finished the book. Also, I know that glossaries don't usually include page numbers, but I wish they had been included here. That way I could go back and find the words within the story.

New words: The text contained lots of new-to-me words. Here's the list (I didn't bother including any of the words included in the glossary):
barque (page 39) - boat - also bark
erysipelas (page 70) - bacterial skin disease
portmanteaus (page 75) - large suitcase
gimballed (page 85) - ring for holding a compass steady
chivvied (page 93) - urge or harass
bowsprit (page 96) - that spear-type thingy on the front of the ship.
pestiferous (page 122) - annoying
torpor (page 177) - inactivity
ameliorated (page 194) - to make something better
slovenly (page 251) - sloppy
limned (page 256) - to draw or paint a picture, especially in profile
obeisance (page 307) - bow, genuflection
ephemera (page 348) - short-lived

Highly recommended. I have The Hatbox Letters sitting on my shelf waiting to be read. I can't wait to read it now. It should be really good.

For more information about this book, please visit the Random House website

There's also a mini-site for The Sea Captain's Wife that features lots of information regarding the book including a Bibliography, a section on nautical terms, as well as short articles on ports of call from the book and some interesting history.

For more information about this author and her other works, please visit Beth Powning's website.

I'd like to thank those nice people at Random House Canada for this review copy.

The Sea Captain's Wife: A Novel by Beth Powning, Alfred A. Knopf (Random House), ©2010 ISBN 9780307397102(Hardcover), 361p (plus Glossary).


  1. I had seen this book and thought it might not be something I'd like but from the way you're describing it, it sounds like I would enjoy it.

  2. I thought it was really interesting. If you like historical fiction, you should give it a try.


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