Take a deep breath before you start reading The Rathbones, and renew regularly. You’ll need it to navigate the story itself, which is mesmerizing, but also for the unexplainable bits: the attempted rape which probably wasn’t, the silent fate of unnumbered baby sisters lost in a family that prizes sons, and the powerful spiritual bond between whales and their pursuers. If that sounds confusing, rest assured that putting these pieces together turned out to be far easier than trying to put the book down—and was an enthralling exercise all the way.
Standouts in a large cast of characters include the novel’s young narrator, Mercy Rathbone; her uncle, Mordecai; and her missing brother, Gideon. Their stories begin during the 19th-century decline of the whaling industry and the subsequent fall of the Rathbone family, whalers through and through. It all harks back to the mid-1700s, when the Rathbones, living in a huge house built to separate the sexes, pursued the patriarch Moses Rathbone’s quest to catch thousands of sperm whales. The family men excelled in their chosen mission (and mission it was) of bonding with the whale population that was then teeming off the Connecticut shore. Behind the scenes lurks the uncredited influence of the forgotten Rathbone women. Only when Moses’ oldest son Bow-Oar impatiently places profit above mysticism do the family fortunes begin to fail.
Janice Clark, a Chicago writer and designer, not surprisingly grew up amid the whaling culture of Mystic, Connecticut. Her book is vastly appealing in its primal reach back to the Odyssey and Moby-Dick. The Rathbones will draw in men and women alike, and at its close, many of those readers may well be inclined to take another deep breath—and start all over again.