I'm not a big reader of historical fiction when it's set prior to the 20th century. The main reason is that they're often slow reads, as the author often has to do more work to frame the story in a particular time and place. One of the best things about books is the ability to transport to other times and places, and you can learn a lot about the world that way, but I just don't often find myself interested in the fiction that's set that far back.
I am a bad reader, I know.
I read this one because the cover was pretty and the jacket copy was intriguing. Hannah is a young Quaker woman in 1845 Nantucket. She helps out in her father's business repairing navigation equipment for ships, but her true passion is in the night sky. At 24, the expectations of her community is that she'll marry and raise good Quaker children, but Hannah's dream is to discover a comet and become the first woman to win a prize for astronomy awarded by the King of Denmark.
When Isaac, a dark-skinned second-mate from a whaling ship, asks Hannah to help him improve his navigational skills, she finds herself drawn to him in a way that is a serious no-no for nineteenth century Nantucket. Their friendship causes a stir in the community, which in turn threatens Hannah's celestial pursuits.
This is kind of a slow book. It's obvious that it's meticulously researched, and there's a lot of science talk when Hannah is teaching Isaac navigation or explaining why the award means to much to her. It's really a book about Hannah's sense of self-discovery more than a book about a swiftly moving plot.
I enjoyed this book because I found Hannah such an intriguing character. She's a strong woman in a time when women weren't encouraged or allowed to be anything but docile and domestic. She's a bit of a loner, often assumed to be looking down on everyone else in the community. She sort of does, but not in a malicious way; it's partially an inability to relate and partially the realization that her community's doctrine isn't always the right, moral path for herself. There's a lot of ideas explored here, but Hannah's growth as she struggles with how to balance society's expectations with her own dreams and beliefs was fascinating for me. It made for a pleasant surprise of a book.