Phoebe Starbuck has always adjusted her sails and rudder to the whims of her father. Now, for the first time, she's doing what she wants to do: marrying Captain Phineas Foulger and sailing far away from Nantucket. As she leaves on her grand adventure, her father gives her two gifts, both of which Phoebe sees little need for. The first is an old sheepskin journal from Great Mary, her highly revered great-grandmother. The other is a "minder" on the whaling ship in the form of cooper Matthew Macy, a man whom she loathes. Soon Phoebe discovers that life at sea is no easier than life on land. Lonely, seasick, and disillusioned, she turns the pages of Great Mary's journal and finds herself drawn into the life of this noble woman. To Phoebe's shock, her great-grandmother has left a secret behind that carries repercussions for everyone aboard the ship, especially her husband the captain and her shadow the cooper. This story within a story catapults Phoebe into seeing her life in an entirely new way--just in time.
Phoebe Starbuck has only just turned eighteen years old and already feels as if she's spent a lifetime caring for her widower father, Barnabus, on the island of Nantucket, MA. No matter how many major financial setbacks he succumbs to, 'ol Barnabus remains ever optimistic about the future. Sadly, optimism alone doesn't pay the bills, so Phoebe has to continually figure out ways to make the meager Starbuck money stretch. Due to too many of Barnabus's failed business ventures, the Starbucks are nearly bankrupt. Resources being limited from the start, the family is now at the point where some miracle boon in fortune must appear or Phoebe and her father will be deemed "Town Poor" and likely homeless shortly thereafter.
Seeing the whaling ship Fortuna come into port, Phoebe (feeling emboldened by her newly minted "adult" status) puts herself together in the most appealing way she can, being a respectable & modest Quaker woman, and approaches the ship's captain, Phineas Foulger, at the docks. Though much older (in his mid 40s), by author Suzanne Fisher's description of him, the reader gets the impression that Phineas's physical appeal has held up well over the years. The last time he last spoke with Phoebe, she was just a mere girl, but now she wants him to see her as potential wife material. Within mere weeks, using only a comely blend of charm, beauty and innocence, Phoebe wins the interest of Capt. Foulger and soon has the MRS title she so strongly sought. As a wedding gift, Barnabus gives Phoebe the journal of her great-grandmother, Mary, telling her that there's said to be great life wisdom in its pages. But why is Captain Foulger SO insistent on knowing the journal's contents?
Though he was initially against the idea, Phoebe convinces her new husband to allow her to accompany him on his next voyage. Also joining the journey is 21 year old Matthew Mitchell, Nantucket's town cooper (barrel maker) and former suitor of Phoebe. Matthew gets a two-fold request to board the Fortuna, one from Barnabas to keep an eye on Phoebe as he does not trust Capt. Foulger -- and Barnabas can see that despite the history between them, Matthew still cares very deeply for Phoebe --- and one from the captain himself to serve as the ship's cooper. But as the reader soon discovers, nothing aboard this ship is as it might first appear.
Expecting the adventure of a lifetime, the new Mrs. Foulger instead finds herself smacked with weeks of sweating out mal de mer (chronic sea sickness). She cannot hold down food, she struggles to be attentive to her new husband, most days she can barely stand for more than a few moments. Before long, the captain seems more annoyed than enamored with his young missus... not just distant, but almost surly. He grows outright neglectful of her, leaving her care primarily to Matthew and the cabin boy, Silo. Suffice it to say, she quickly regrets her earlier insistence on coming along on this voyage! The crew of the Fortuna meanwhile battles epic squalls, ship fires, and constant crew fights, blaming it all on the bad luck superstition of having a woman on board.
Phoebe's Light is the first in what looks to be at least a trilogy from Suzanne Woods Fisher, who is primarily known for her nonfiction and fiction Amish-themed books. Between our main character's story and that of her great-grandmother Mary, the novel spans both the 17th and 18th centuries. Props to whomever came up with the idea to print Mary's journal entries in slightly faded ink... brings in a nice realistic touch for the reader, since the fadedness of the journal is something Phoebe mentions repeatedly struggling with as she makes her way through the pages.
My stance on Phoebe weeble-wobbled throughout the story's progress. In the beginning she seemed sweet and good-hearted, but it can be frustrating reading a character so stubbornly set on getting her way that you just have to watch her set herself up for failure... maybe it's tough because we don't like to see ourselves quite so much, eh? But there were other sides to Phoebe's strong will that were quite admirable. Oooh, I got goosebumps and cheered when she stills the captain in his tracks with her quiet, edged "I asked you a question." Go, girl!
Also might just be me on this one, but I got a giggle out of Fisher's approach to the topic of sex (or almost sex) in this Christian fiction work. Every time the old captain tried to corner Phoebe for her "marital duties", someone conveniently shows up with a "Captain, you're needed at the helm." There's even one point where Phoebe herself prays for a distraction, gets it moments later when yet again her husband is called away, and the next line reads, "She had never known the Lord to work with such haste." Oh man, loved it!
Though not absolutely perfect in execution, Fisher crafts one highly immersive tale of historical fiction! I found myself craving just a bit more action and moments of tension between the various protagonists and antagonists, but even so was quite satisfied with the rich detail in character personality traits and living environments. Whether Phoebe was on land or at sea, every bit of her world was virtually tactile to me as the reader, a credit to Fisher's finely honed writing skills. Also a nice feature: if you are a reader new to historical fiction, Fisher includes a handy pages-long 18th century terminology glossary at the front of the book you can refer to for those dated terms.
I close this book having really become attached to this family and I eagerly anticipate the next installment to see what happens with the next generation!
FTC Disclaimer: Revell Books (Baker Publishing Group) kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.