A beautifully spun tale of haunted family history and high-seas adventure, The Rathbones starts off at the shores of Naiwayonk, Connecticut. There we meet fifteen-year-old Mercy—the last of the Rathbones clan—who hasn’t laid eyes on her sea-faring father for ten years and whose mother still paces her widow’s walk every night, waiting for her husband’s ship to appear on the horizon. Much like her protagonist, author Janice Clark grew up in an old whaling port off the coast of Connecticut, and the authenticity of place with which she’s infused the book is evident on every page. In this exclusive essay for the Reading Group Center, Janice Clark elaborates on how she re-created different aspects of her hometown in the book.
Growing up in Mystic, Connecticut, a nineteenth-century whaling port (and home to Mystic Seaport, the maritime museum whose centerpiece is a restored whaling vessel), I walked daily down streets lined with old whaling captains’ houses. My own family lived in a mid-century modern house, an architectural style which I now love but as a child hated, and my sisters and I always longed to live instead in one of the austere white Greek Revival houses—topped with widow’s walks—that perch on Mystic’s hills, overlooking the sea.
Other Mystic locales that inspired the novel include the local library, a wonderful nineteenth-century building with a dark, heavily beamed ceiling that always reminded me of the overturned hull of a ship (a feature which shows up in the novel in Mordecai’s attic) and was in fact built in 1891 by Elihu Spicer, a ship’s captain. And Rathbone House itself was inspired by a seedy, teetering Victorian on a hill overlooking the harbor in Noank, Connecticut; local legend had macabre cartoonist Charles Addams living there at one time.
As an adult, now living far from the ocean near which I grew up and always longing for it, writing a novel about whaling kept me connected to the sea in a vital way. I became fascinated by the contrasts in the history of whaling that provide much of the novel’s Gothic charge: the contrast between the primness of those captains’ houses with their clean white clapboard walls and the bloody business of whaling on which their owners’ fortunes were built; and the disparity between the violent deaths of those huge creatures and the delicately-carved objects that sailors would spend their months and years at sea making from the whales’ bones as gifts for their sweethearts back home: slender white corset busks, little white combs, fine portraits incised in great teeth.
The vanished whales of The Rathbones are the great, silent ghosts that glide under the novel’s Gothic adventure story and remind us about the 100-year arc of the American whaling industry and its exploitation of nature: the immense resources and commensurate greed possible only in a continent so vast and so rich.