Review: 'The Rathbones' by Janice Clark

When I think of coziness, my mind turns to the tiny log cabin from the children's classic, "Little House in the Big Woods," where little Laura and her pa, ma and sisters lived in the vast Wisconsin forest.

The house was a comfortable house. Upstairs, there was a large attic, pleasant to play in when rain drummed on the roof. Downstairs was the small bedroom, and the big room. The bedroom had a window that closed with a wooden shutter. The big room had two windows with glass in the panes, and it had two doors, a front door and a back door.

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This is more than just a memory. Laura's home feels real to me, as if I lived there once, too. My sense of it is, perhaps, even more vivid than my memories of my own home when I was young. I can feel the smooth wooden planks in the cabin's big room. I can smell the venison smoking in the hollow tree in the yard. I can see the family's large attic, hung with smoked meat wrapped in paper. I can hear pa playing the fiddle.

My own father read "Little House in the Big Woods" to me when I was 6. I was sick at the time, and somehow "Little House" came to house my feelings of family and warmth and the love I felt for my father. Thinking about this book now, five years after my dad passed, I can smell the hickory smoke intermingled with the spicy smell of his cologne, faint as he sat next to my bed, reading.

Oh, the power books possess. Like magicians incanting words from a spell, they conjure real things, real locations. Children's books are especially unreserved about unspooling long, luscious descriptions of places. Who can forget the magical boarding school for witches and wizards, Hogwarts, lovingly detailed by J.K. Rowling in her seven Harry Potter books? How many children live partly at Hogwarts, dreaming about talking portraits, dusty stone hallways, deadly plant life?

Occasionally, writers of books for adults are willing to dedicate long paragraphs to descriptions of places, too. Janice Clark, in her new novel, "The Rathbones," steeps readers in her world, which is strange and unforgettable.

Here's the narrator, Mercy Rathbone, a 15-year-old member of a decaying whaling family, describing her mother whittling whale bones as she awaits her husband's return from whaling trips:

Mama kept a bouquet of bones in a willow basket on the hearth, the long curved sections of a mammoth rib, their ends sawed clean. She was working on her boat that evening. She had for some years been shaping a boat of bone, as long as her, which grew slowly in the center of the table, resting on a frame of wood. The ribs and strakes were complete, lashed together with line made from baleen, so that the form of the boat was clearly limned against the black table, though it still lacked planking. Tonight she was grinding along the edge of the keel with a rasp, smoothing its shape.

What imagery! And, like all great descriptions of places that exist only in books, how downright odd and unfamiliar. Clark raises so many fascinating questions. Why did Mama saw the ends of the mammoth ribs clean? What is this giant bone boat she is making? Who is it for? What does "line made from baleen" look like?

And Clark is not done. She continues:

She carved no common items such as sailors made, no jagging wheels or ditty boxes, though most everything in her room but her bed and wardrobe was fashioned of bone. Her chair was bone with a caned seat, its seat posts capped with teeth. The mirror over her dressing table was framed in sperm ribs trained into an oval.

What is a jagging wheel? A ditty box? And what is this home made of whale bones! How grotesque. How bizarre. How memorable. Never before have I seen a chair made of bone with posts capped with teeth, but now I can picture it along with the mirror framed with ribs. Revolting and yet, how can I ever forget this?

The book is filled with similar details. I thought for days about the blanket on Mercy's bed, "loomed of plain wool with a border of crabs linked claw to claw, woven in a watery green" and her home, "built like a seaworthy ship," packed with shelves and drawers and "small spaces locked against light and vermin."

And here is where her cousin lives, in an attic like no other:

Cousin Mordecai had lived in the attic as long as I could remember, under the hull of the Sassacus. One of our ancestors had installed her there, the bottom half of a square-rigged brig of fifty-odd feet, her upper decks stripped off and her hull turned and bolted down over the top of the house in place of a roof.

This had me pondering for hours. What would a roof constructed from the upside-down hull of a ship look like? What would it sound like? How would you fasten it to the house? What does the exterior of the Rathbone house look like, with its ship's hull for a roof and a widow's walk, "always the soft shuffle of sand underfoot, even up there, blown in from the shore, sloughing the wood away?"

A writer and designer, Janice Clark lives in Chicago, but grew up in Mystic, Conn., a whaling town on the Atlantic Coast. Her story — which really follows Mercy on a tale of nautical adventure — is soaked with Mystic's briny air. Reading "The Rathbones," you will want to live in these salt-swept cottages, sleep in these damp sheets, feel the Atlantic breeze sweep in to your bedroom at night. Here is Clark's description of one character's house, a bit of writing that borders on home porn:

The high-ceilinged space was awash in light from tall windows all around. Sea air gusted through doors and windows, billowing the long white curtains, wafting across fresh-scrubbed floors and over the few simple, solid pieces of furniture that smelled of beeswax and shone in the fresh light.

In some ways, The Rathbones is a tour of luscious Atlantic images that will stay with you longer than the details of Mercy's seafaring journey. And that's OK. Clark's magic is in creating places that will linger with you, and make you long for the sea as if you, too, were spawned from an ancient whaling family.

Trine Tsouderos is a frequent Printers Row Journal contributor.

"The Rathbones"

By Janice Clark, Doubleday, 384 pages, $26.95

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