In its basic concepts, the book comes down to a story about the Rathbones, a whaling family, their wives and descendants. It covers about 100 years, from the mid 1700’s to the mid 1800”s. The book is narrated by Mercy Rathbone, as she and Mordechai Rathbone, whom we meet as her cousin and tutor, search for her father and brother who had disappeared years ago. We discover the history of the family, side by side with them, basically by piecing together journals, logs, conversations, and interviews that create a family tree. The search takes them far and wide, to places like Mouse Island where they discover great-great aunts they didn’t know existed, to a sinking island and a cave with a strange woman who communicates with the birds on her island.
The history concentrates on the heirs of Moses. Moses was actually found, orphaned, adrift in a barrel in the sea, by Aaron Rathbone, and the barrel theme recurs as does the theme of crows, although the reason is obscure for most of the book. The Rathbone men, chiefly led by Moses, basically attracted women and brought them home to bear more male children to work on the whaling ships. After the women ended their child-bearing years, they were exiled to Mouse Island where they lived together. Oddly, they seemed content with this arrangement.
In their quest, Mercy and Mordechai are introduced to relatives they did not know existed, and they learn about extraordinary events and family secrets. However, the story seems to bounce around in time and place, between their current time and the past that they learn about. There seems to be no clear division of time or place, so that sometimes, I wasn’t sure exactly when the character being discussed changed, with another taking center stage in another time and place.
Perhaps the track of the time would be clearer in the written book form; perhaps there is a family tree actually drawn in for reference and a map included which traces their travels, and then, perhaps not. I listened to the audio book, and although there were several readers, the rare alternate voices were not that unique to the characters as in some audio books, where the reader instantly knows who is speaking; for instance, both Mordechai and the ship’s captain speak in the same manner.
Too many revelations and too many fabrications cropped up, that later were reversed, and I began to lose interest in the story. By the time the truth was revealed, the route was so circuitous that I had tired of it and had no interest in discovering it, nor could I remember the trail leading the way or even why it was important! In addition, the use of marine language about the whaling industry and the sea was beyond me, and it was not elucidated. This problem might be better addressed in the printed book so that the reader could make notes, look up information and then look back at the page to clear up any confusing terminology.
The allusions to magic and fantasy and hints at the supernatural, with Mercy’s gifted eyesight and perhaps her second sight, and crows that could lift her and defend her, were not that engaging
There were too many characters, and which wife was married to what brother and which child belonged to which wife, held no charm for me. Although, it was very imaginative and creative, at times I couldn’t tell if I was reading something referencing the Greek myths, or the Bible, with the baby rescued from the sea by Aaron, or the Puritans with names like Patience, Verity and Constance. There were many allusions to the myths, with insinuations of sirens, singing in the night, women in caves, and a ship named Argo, with the Stark sisters who became the wives of the brothers and were called the Golden Girls and were blamed for the downfall of the family.
I know I am bucking the tide because most readers really liked the book, but in the end, it all seemed a bit incoherent to me, with the thoughts racing against each other in time line and theme.