Sena Jeter Naslund


"Four Spirits"

(Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran OCT 5, 2003)

For anyone with even a passing knowledge of 20th century American history, the mention of Birmingham, Alabama conjures up numerous associations, none of them pleasant. Racist police chief Bull Conner, the use of police dogs and water cannons on peaceful demonstrators, and especially the church bombing which resulted in the deaths of four little girls are all part of Birmingham's struggle to accept racial integration. In a follow up to her critically acclaimed novel, Ahab's Wife, Birmingham native Sena Jeter Naslund has created a complex and intriguing work set in her hometown during the height of the Civil Rights era.

Read excerpt

Four Spirits is hefty, weighing in at over 500 pages although it reads quickly, mostly due to Naslund's use of multiple narrators. The main story begins with the infamous "water cannon" demonstrations through the eyes of several different characters, participants and observers, supporters and detractors. Naslund chooses Stella Silver, a young white college graduate to be her main narrator. Stella, a semi-autobiographical character, was the sole survivor of a horrific car crash that claimed her entire family and has grown up an erudite and passionate, if somewhat sheltered, young woman. She comes into her own when she and a friend accept jobs teaching high school dropouts at night school. The counterpoint to Stella's cool steel magnolia exterior is her fellow teacher, the aggressive and bitter Christine Taylor, a black woman who is an outspoken supporter of integration. Christine, no stranger to loss herself, teaches physics and participates in as many demonstrations as she can while raising three children without a husband.

The use of multiple narrators can be quite tricky and though Naslund doesn't pull if off quite as well as say, Matthew Kneale with his English Passengers, it does lend an air of complexity to an era that could easily be seen as, if you'll pardon the expression, black and white. Stella, Christine, Stella's friend and fellow teacher wheelchair bound Cat, their colleague Gloria, and the night school principal, Lionel, all struggle with their personal demons. Naslund never allows any of them to become a saint; each is portrayed with their very human foibles. She even includes as narrators a hateful Klan bomber and his abused wife in an attempt to portray all points of view. Naslund manages to integrate real events and characters, the bombings, Martin Luther King, Reverend Shuttlesworth, into her story without letting the novel become a history textbook. She takes as the novel's emotional center the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, an event nearing its 40th anniversary. The bombing resulted in the deaths of four schoolgirls, the titular Four Spirits, although Naslund never stoops to using the girls or their families as fodder for her novel. Their spirits, and the reactions of others to their deaths, serve as an often fantastic backdrop to the second half of the novel.

Naslund has chosen to use women, an oft neglected aspect of Civil Rights history, as her main, and most believable, characters. The men appear also, and are richly drawn, but serve more in the periphery than her strong and complex women. The novel is long and bogs down slightly in sections about the Kennedy assassination and also those dealing with Stella's love life. These, however, are small downsides to what is largely a haunting and intriguing work. Those searching for Hollywood endings would do well to look elsewhere as Naslund effectively drills home her idea that this period in American history is less a struggle than a war. Birmingham, and at least one of its favorite daughters, seems ready to come to grips with this war.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 21 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Four Spirits at MostlyFiction.com

(back to top)

"Ahab's Wife or, The Star-Gazer"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark OCT 11, 1999)

"...away, whole oceans away, from that young girl-wife I wedded past fifty, and sailed for Cape Horn the next day, leaving but one dent in my marriage pillow --wife? wife? -- rather a widow with her husband alive! Aye, I widowed that poor girl when I married her..." Ahab, Moby-Dick by James Melville

Old Ahab, even in pursuit of his Moby Dick, had a young wife and a son. But who was this wife? How did Ahab come to meet her and why would she accept and love the old cannibal? Just how did she take it when he preferred to follow his madman's need for revenge and his relentless pursuit of Moby Dick, the great white whale? From a single paragraph in the original novel, Sena Jeter Naslund writes this marvelous novel about Una Spenser, a most surprising woman with a very interesting life.

Just as Ishmael told us the story of Captain Ahab and Moby Dick, Una sets out to write her own epic autobiography and how she came to be wedded to Captain Ahab. She begins her story with the compelling first line that "Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last..." Her tale is not told in chronological order for she must write the absolute worst first, so that she does not lose the nerve to tell the rest of her story. Soon we learn about her life as a young girl in Kentucky then at twelve going off to live with relatives in an island lighthouse off the coast of Massachusetts. When she is sixteen she runs away to sea dressed as a boy where a year or so later she and her two friends survive a shipwreck. And finally we learn about her life on Nantucket, her island home under the stars.

Like Melville's Moby Dick, Ahab's Wife is filled with philosophical musings. From her earliest years she resists blind acceptance of God and the bible. As an adult she explores the different Christian branches of churches learning the difference between Quakers, Universalists, and Unitarians comparing them always to her father's less liberal Methodist beliefs. She chooses the parts that feel most comfortable to her, tossing the remainder. She surrounds herself with interesting and intellectual people, having been taught early to really look at who people are and what they do. She feels that she exercises free will, not noticing how often it seems that fate brings her and each of her husbands together (fate versus freewill is key to Melville's Moby Dick). Soon after she marries Ahab, she meets the feminist Margaret Fuller in Boston and learns some of the new transcendalist philosophies. In Nantucket, she meets Maria Mitchell, who with her father, is a dedicated astronomer. Una, a star-gazer herself, has a more qualitative than quantitative interest. When Ahab is home, time is too precious for them to look at the stars, when they are apart they communicate through the skies. Later as a widow upon her rooftop walk, her companions are the stars. She comes to feel the earth as her ship, moving upon the great Celestial River of the stars.

Unlike Melville's Moby Dick, I found the language easily accessible, yet still more flowery than how we write today. She maintains Ahab's Quaker voice for him and often when others are in conversation with him. The imagery of the novel is quite compelling. For example, on a recent visit to Cape Cod we were completely fogged in, and as I was looking out the window I realized that I was imagining Una on Nantucket walking the moors in the foggy darkness. Another image that I keep going back to is the morning Una awakes to a snow covered boat. Vivid also are the descriptions of winter in her mother's Kentucky cabin which is enough to make me want to slip under my own down comforter.

Even if one hasn't read Moby Dick, Ahab's Wife is a great story with its many surprises and fantastic imagery. What I like best is the feel she gives of the first half of the 19th century. This is a time when letter writing is the main form of long-distance communication with slow and unreliable mail delivery. Travel is accomplished by horse and buggy, paddleships, sailboats and walking. Families entertain themselves by singing, reading and dancing. And naturally, whale oil is used for lighting. In a way, Ahab's Wife reminds me of Little Women, in that Una experiences some very sad and horrible events, but is able to continue to live a healthy life when it is clear that not all are as capable (like Ahab...). At one point, Ahab cautiously points out that happiness never lasts. Una sincerely replies that neither does unhappiness. And I think this is the core of this self assured, independent and highly spirited woman. Who else could have married Ahab?

I highly recommend Ahab's Wife or,The Stargazer as one of the main books to read this winter. This 600+ page novel is so absorbing, it should keep your mind off any actual storms and cold winds. For me, it was especially rewarding since I descend from Nantucket whalers on both sides of my family. You'd think I'd enjoy Moby Dick, but I could never really transcend the archaic language nor accept Ahab's overriding need for revenge. Ahab's Wife is a softer version, one probably more suited by a pacifist, beginning a new story where Melville left off. I encourage you to take the adventure offered in Naslund's latest novel.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 268 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Ahab's Wife at MostlyFiction.com



(back to top)

Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

 

(back to top)

Book Marks:

 

(back to top)

About the Author:

Sena Jeter NaslundSena Jeter Naslund grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, where she attended public schools and recieved a B.A. from Birmingham-Southern College. She has also lived in Louisiana, West Virginia, and California. She recieved her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. As well as authoring two other novels and two collections of short stories, her short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, Michigan Quarterly Reivew and many others.

For twelve years she directed the Creative Writing Program at the University of Louisville, where she teaches and holds the title Distinguished Teaching Professor. Concurrently, she is a member of the M.F.A. in Writing faculty of Vermont College. She is cofounder and editor of the literary magazine The Louisville Review and the the Fleur-de-lis Press, housed at Spaulding Univeristy, and has taught at the University of Montana and Indiana University. She is the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the Kentucky Arts Council. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

MostlyFiction.com About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014 MostlyFiction.com