Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Books for Adults - Nonfiction
‘Hen Frigates’ was a derisive name given to vessels where the masters of merchant ships brought along their wives during the 19th century. Abby Morrell’s account is one of the first of these narratives and concerns a three-year voyage that took her from New York to the South Pacific. She married Benjamin Morrell, a cousin, in 1824 at the age of fifteen. Three weeks later, Benjamin set sail on a two-year voyage. After other separations, including another one lasting almost a year, she decided that the next time he set sail, she would accompany him. “At first he apparently would not hear of it; but ‘when I insisted (as far as affectionate obedience could insist) he at last reluctantly yielded . . . .” (5)
Soon after they embarked in September 1829 aboard the Antarctic, Abby fretted about her young son, who remained on shore, and suffered from seasickness. Eventually, she overcame both of these impediments and, with little to occupy her days, became an observer of life at sea, the various worlds she visited, and the people she met. In addition to her many observations, she also argues for the improvement of seamen, both in their working conditions and as regards their education.
Whether she’s discussing cannibals, an interfering American consul, or an earthquake, she is matter-of-fact in her narrative. She neither sensationalizes nor exaggerates, unlike her husband who also left an account of the voyage. A map depicting the various islands visited appears in the front of the book, making it easy for readers to locate where Abby is at any stage in her journey until her return home three years later.
Captain’s Wife is the seventh volume in the Seafarer’s Voice series and is the only one from a woman’s perspective. This account, taken from the one published in 1833, is considerably shorter, mainly because the editor, Vincent McInerney, omitted much of the text that pertained to “religious and evangelical matters of perhaps limited interest to the majority of contemporary readership, plus some topographical and geographical material.” This book is highly entertaining and readable, and more than once readers will find themselves holding their breath, sitting on the edges of their seats, and marveling at Abby’s examination of life on a ship and in exotic ports of call.
Review Copyrighted ©2012 Cindy Vallar
Captain’s Wife is the seventh in a series called Seafarer’s Voices that offers first-hand accounts of voyages covering a two hundred-year period. This particular volume is a newly edited version of a journal detailing an 1829 to 1831 voyage from New England to the South Pacific and back by Abby Jane Morrell, a merchant captain’s wife. Originally published in 1833, purportedly as “a plea for an amelioration of the lot of American seaman,” this fascinating account more importantly gives the reader a clear vision of what such a voyage was like from the unique perspective of an educated woman of the time.
Abby Morrell’s natural curiosity and keen mind are evident everywhere. She not only carefully chronicles the places her husband’s ship, the schooner Antarctic, visits, complete with vivid descriptions of the flora, fauna, and people encountered, but she also offers insightful comments on how these amazing new things fit into the world she knows. Her observations may not always be scientifically accurate or her opinions considered political correct by twenty-first-century standards – she is convinced of the superiority of her own race and religion, for instance – but this makes her voice all the more true. And for her time, her attitudes are often surprisingly liberal.
Of course, the most compelling character encountered is Abby Morrell herself. Married at fifteen, she left one young son with her mother to undertake this voyage at the age of twenty, giving birth to a second son nine days after returning home. Although she makes no mention of her indelicate condition in her journal, it is easy to imagine her waddling about the ship hugely pregnant. I regret Vincent McInerney’s introduction didn’t fill in the rest of her life after the voyage was completed. As it is, someone the reader has come to know and like just disappears into the mists of time.
Abby’s husband, Benjamin Morrell, also published an account of this voyage in his book entitled A Narrative of Four Voyages. Abby accompanied him on the fourth and final one. I must admit I sought out this book and enjoyed reading the parallel versions of this trip. The facts were the same, but the perceptions and areas of interest were often very different. In discussing her efforts to convince her husband that she should accompany him, Abby only says, “I insisted (as far as affectionate obedience could insist).” Benjamin’s lengthier account details a process that might be familiar to some present-day husbands by which she simply wore him down.
By turns feisty, opinionated, inquisitive, and contemplative, Abby Morrell lives and breathes on these pages. Many will want to read Captain’s Wife as a tale of adventure, but what has stayed in my mind is the character of the incomparable young woman who told these tales. Recommended.
Review Copyrighted ©2012 Merry Simmons
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