Nightbirds on Nantucket by Joan Aiken

I recently acquired a copy of The Stolen Lake, which is the fourth book in Joan Aiken’s “Wolves Chronicles”, and it prompted me to check out this book, which is the third in the series, from the library. Nightbirds on Nantucket is totally bonkers, and totally excellent. It opens on a ship at sea in the Arctic; a girl is asleep on deck and we learn she’s “been asleep for more than ten months”. She wakes, and turns out to be Dido Twite from Blackhearts in Battersea: this ship, a whaling vessel out of Nantucket, picked her up from the water where she’d been clinging to the mast of a wrecked ship and she’s been along for the ride with them ever since. The ship Dido’s on belongs to Captain Casket, a Quaker whaler who is “funny in one way, awful peculiar”: he says he’s seen a pink whale, and, moreover, he “forever had this notion that one day he would see one—on account of summat as happened when he was a boy.”

Dido just wants to go home to London, but that’s not in the cards, at least not immediately: the boat isn’t heading to port anytime soon, and when it does go ashore it’ll be in America, not England. She has a project, at least: she learns that the captain’s wife died on board, and his young daughter, Dutiful Penitence, has shut herself up in her cabin: the captain wonders whether Dido might be able to persuade her to come out. Meanwhile, the first mate seems to be up to something shady, and the ship is still in pursuit of that elusive pink whale.

Dido’s approach to getting Dutiful Penitence (or Pen, as she comes to be known) to emerge from her self-imposed isolation is excellent, and I love the way Dido also tries to teach Pen to be more independent and resourceful and less of a scaredy-cat. (To wit: “By innumerable tales about her own life Dido was managing to suggest that all dogs do not bite, that occupations such as skating and swimming can be enjoyable, that people tend to be friendlier when you talk to them boldly and cheerfully than when you cower away as if you expect them to murder you.”) But plotwise, there’s a whole lot more going on: the world of this book is a world in which the House of Hanover has not taken the British monarchy, though Hanoverians are constantly scheming to overthrow the Stuart king James III. And some of those Hanoverians might have a plan that involves the island of Nantucket. When Dido and Pen are sent ashore to live with Pen’s Aunt Tribulation (whom Pen remembers being terrified of as a a child) they find themselves with more to worry about than the endless list of farm chores and house chores they’re told to do.

Dido is a whole lot of fun and it’s great to watch Pen learn to do things on her own; the supporting characters are also excellent: among other’s there’s a Nantucket boy named Nate (who likes to sing songs of his own devising: “I allus used to make up verses at home, about sheep and funerals, you know, and pickled tamarinds and so forth,” he explains), a bird that spouts pro-Stuart sayings, and a professor working on a project he thinks will produce a “magnifibang.”






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