Author Beth Powning will read from The Sea Captain’s Wife on Friday, March 19 at 7 p.m. in the Ganong Hall Lecture Theatre as part of UNB Saint John’s Lorenzo Reading Series.
When Sussex, New Brunswick novelist Beth Powning published her first novel, The Hatbox Letters –described as “a stunning debut” by The Globe and Mail – she had already published three works of non-fiction. Her memoir, Shadow Child: An Apprenticeship in Love and Loss, was shortlisted for the Edna Staebler Award. Powning’s work in prose and photography includes Seeds of Another Summer, published as Home: Chronicle of a North Country Life in the US. In 2005, she published the non-fiction work Edge Seasons.
About The Sea Captain’s Wife
Azuba Bradstock, five years married and living in the Fundy port of Whelan’s Cove, is not content with her situation. Although she lives in a high, airy house – a wedding gift from her father when she married Captain Nathaniel Bradstock – she longs to be at sea with her husband. The Captain is infrequently at home, and although Azuba loves her daughter and lives a work-filled life, she begrudges the broken promise of travel. When she commits an indiscretion during one of the Captain’s absences, he decides that she will in fact accompany him, but not for reasons that coincide with hers. His decision is an exercise in authority, not a concession. He is a man habituated to command.
Azuba and her daughter trade the seasonal routines of rural life for a severely regulated and confined seaboard existence.
The Sea Captain’s Wife is an account of their crisscrossing of the Atlantic aboard Bradstock’s vessel Traveller – journeys of beauty and terror, marital tension and resolution. Recreating the world of seagoing sailing ships, Powning, like Coleridge in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, sends her travellers on a perilous journey around Cape Horn and into the Pacific. On the return journey – bound for Antwerp – passengers and crew endure an equatorial becalming, a mutiny and near-mortal starvation. Even the bone buttons on their clothing must be sacrificed to survival.
For Azuba, the years of travel involve a re-figuring of human significance relative to sea, sky, and the elements. When the familiar ground of home and the life she’d known dwindle in memory, she learns “the true size of the world” – the diminutive “singularity” of the human figure in its near-hopeless effort to accomplish work of worth in the face of forces so disproportionate to human strength. Even in the comfort and luxury of Antwerp, having cast off buttonless clothes for Brussels lace, she cannot shed this new knowledge. When she thinks of the Flemish lacemakers “rendering thread so fine, so gossamer, that it was drawn from the distaff over a piece of black paper, in a room pitch-black save for a single ray of light,” she realizes that the enterprises of some people require that they work “alone, and in darkness” and concedes that a similar “singularity” characterizes her husband’s life and work. When Traveller sails from Antwerp to Hong Kong, it is the Captain’s turn to concede previously unacknowledged capabilities in his wife.
Exploring the relations between the genders in the 19thcentury economy, The Sea Captain’s Wife is a work of visual intelligence in its striking and world-ranging imagery. Powning’s novel is also an elegy for the days of sail.
“The writing [in The Hatbox Letters] is highly sensual, painterly even, vividly portraying the natural world and its changing seasons…. Powning’s subject here is no less than the relationship of life and death, and she engages it with rigour and grace.” Quill & Quire
Patty O’Brien, Communication Officer (506) 648-5707