A Quaker Girl of Nantucket
1890
Mary Catherine Lee
Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co./ Riverside Press, Cambridge

This was written as adolescent fiction in a somewhat exotic locale, and by now it is adolescent historical fiction.

The setting is mostly Nantucket, and partly Newport and New York, in the days of the robber barons with summer mansions and yachts. Nantucket is the somewhat exotic - historical but faded, bleak and isolated - and these factors are exaggerated here (Nantucket was never cut off from the mainland for several months at a time.) The descriptions of its bleak beauty remind me of current descriptions of the deserts in the US Southwest. Time moves slowly on Nantucket now, and it is far from urban progress and entertainments. The time setting is perhaps the 1870s, before the tourists ruined things!

"Nantucket town is the slowly pulsing heart of Nantucket island, and its history is the history of other hearts,-- hope, the high tide of full experience, and at length placid repose. Alas for that repose since the worls has come to buy it, and in contagious fever has started the calm pulse to abnormal throbbing! Alas for that sweet and wholesome serenity!

...Sometimes those old houses looked stiff and uncordial, with a thoroughly prudent air, but they were always sweet and simple, always and altogether delightful with the purest essense of hospitality at heart.

This is as they were years ago, before the invasion of the summer visitor. Some of them remain so to this day."


The proper folk of Nantucket are the old Quaker families, and the unrefined are the fishermen and sailors. The Quakers speak with their famous "thee," "thou," "First Day", etc., and the other islanders have Cape/Island accents, except for the ex-slave servant Rosanna's black accent. Quakerism is mostly treated as being quaint - "interesting people, but so glad we're not them."

Miriam, the Quaker Girl, enters the story at age 12, a stand-in for every adolescent. She's under the self-righteous thumb of her old-time-Quaker aunt Hepsy, but dreams of small worldly luxuries and some freedom. The family is middle class, but perhaps largely living off old money from the evil Triangle Trade. Her widower father, Obed Swain, is there, but largely leaves the rearing of a girl-child to his sister.

The plot is a series of impossible coincidences:
there was a mix-up of babies after a steamer shipwreck at Nantucket. The boys are being brought by the "wrong" families, and feel out of place. (There is a strong assumption of "breeding" here.) When Miriam drifts out to sea in a rowboat, she is rescued by a yacht, whose owner's extended family realizes that an orphaned Nantucket boy is theirs, so the boy they have is NOT theirs. The "wrong" boy, Rollo, immediately runs away, to sea it turns out. Miriam is delighted by the worldly pleasures of the rich in Newport and New York, but has a nervous breakdown when her father is lost at sea, feeling that loss is her punishment for being worldly. Rollo comes to Nantucket at loose ends, and innocently joins up with the cranky fisherfolk who tried unsuccessfully to raise the other boy as a fisherman. Rollo is good at that, inherits some money, becomes a well-off ship's officer. He finds evidence that the family who raised him has forgotten him. Meanwhile the mother he deserted is pining away with guilt, and the "right" boy is an effete non-entity. Miriam gradually recovers (her father took a different ship, and was then jailed in the South for trying to help the freedmen.) There is the typical New England story here, of misunderstanding and obsessive taciturnity that almost leads to disaster. Finally the characters are together on Nantucket, the young men figure out who the other is with help from Miriam; Rollo is re-united with his mother and united with Miriam. The children have grown up.

Overall, I liked the book. I liked the descriptions of the places and people. The vocabulary is more sophisticated than in corresponding literature now, and old fashioned of course. The coincidences are hard to swallow, but they allow a self-contained or symmetric story.

David Kew
May 2002

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