Friday, May 20, 2011

Nightbirds on Nantucket by Joan Aiken: A Sympathy Message for Kennedy-Era American Children


Who can resist this jacket design by Edward Gorey?
For the kiddie portion of my Tales of the Whales booklist, I read Nightbirds on Nantucket by Joan Aiken.  The story begins when ten-year old Dido Twite, an English girl, awakens from a ten-month coma aboard an American whaling ship.  When Dido recovers, Captain Casket asks her to befriend his skittish daughter, Dutiful Penitence, who refuses to leave her cabin because she is afraid of the sea.  Dido teaches the serious Quaker girl to have fun and play games.  Eventually, Dutiful, or Pen, as Dido calls her, musters her courage and leaves the cabin.
            Captain Casket is on a mission to find a pink whale he rescued from a beach in his boyhood.  He is so obsessed with finding “Rosie” the whale that he leaves Pen and Dido at his Nantucket home with Aunt Tribulation.  Aunt Trib is like the stepmother in Cinderella – she forces the girls to do chores all day and to wait on her like servants.  Dido teaches Pen to stand up against Trib, and the girl develops some backbone.
            Nightbirds is an “off-shoot” of Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase series, but the story won’t confuse readers who are unfamiliar with the earlier books.  Readers will like Dido because she is brave and heroic and a tad full of herself.  It’s great fun to see her give Aunt Tribulation what-for.  Aunt Tribulation (who isn’t who you think she is) is deliciously bad.  Nate the cabin boy is Dido's friend and ally.  He owns a talking bird named Mr. Jenkins who offers plenty of laughs with his silly, aristocratic squawking.  When Dido asks the bird where he’s been, he merely answers, “Your Grace’s wig needs a little more powder!”
            From what I know about Aiken’s Wolves series, the books revolve around an alternate history, where King James II was never deposed.  In her world, King James III rules, but he's constantly harassed by The Hanoverians.  This conspiring is critical to Nightbirds on Nantucket.  Dido, Nate, and Pen thwart an assassination attempt on King James III in the story’s climax.
            While the Wolves of Willoughby Chase books are set in England with English characters, Nightbirds has a distinctly American flavor.  The plot thickens when the children discover a huge gun on Nantucket brought overseas by the evil Hanoverians.  It is a 19th century intercontinental missile aimed at King James’s palace.  The kick from this “cannon” would be so massive as to cause a tidal wave and knock Nantucket into New York harbor.  It’s bad for England and bad for America.
            I was really enjoying the book until this gun came into play.  If the whole book had been outlandishly anachronistic, I would have believed this piece of technology belonged in Aiken’s 19th century alternate world.  The story was doing well enough with the developing friendship between the girls and the vexing of Aunt Trib.  It didn’t need anything as remarkable as a long range missile– perhaps a low-tech plot against the crown would have worked better for me?
            So why did Aiken put this unwieldy gun in her story?  I have a theory that’s based upon historical context.  Nightbirds was published in 1966, which means Aiken was probably writing it in 1965 or before.  She clearly wanted to target her American fans by setting it in an American locale with American characters.  But what did American children in the mid-60s think about?  What would they be interested in reading? 
If I’d been a school-aged child at that time, I would have been wiggin’ out about the Cuban Missile Crisis.  I think I’d be highly upset that my young and charismatic president had been recently assassinated.  Aiken catered to these concerns.  The big gun pointing at James III’s palace is like the Cuban missiles pointing at America.  The Professor Breadno character who made the Hanoverian gun is a German scientist; he calls to mind the German scientists behind early nuclear experimentation.  The setting in Nantucket and the threat that it would be destroyed is a sad reminder of John F. Kennedy.  The Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port is a straight shot across Nantucket Sound from the island.  It is well-known that JFK spent many a summer day sailing those waters.  Dave Powers, a longtime aide to President Kennedy wrote of Kennedy’s passion for sailing and for his boat, the Victura:
“Victura was among the President's most prized possessions. A gift on his fifteenth birthday, he sailed it as a young man, Navy hero, Congressman, Senator and finally as President. It was on the Victura that he began winning races at the age of 15, and on which he taught his wife Jacqueline how to sail. If the President wasn't sailing on Victura, he was thinking about it as evidenced by his many doodles of the sailboat. Even during his toughest crises like the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy's doodles reflect his love of Victura and of the sea...When the President visited Hyannis Port, he was never happier than when he was at the helm of Victura, sailing with family and friends.”
Kennedy on his beloved Victura

If only our fallen president had Dido to foil his enemies as King James III did…

Perhaps I’m reading too much into Aiken’s plot, but it’s not unreasonable to suspect she pandered to the American market to boost her sales and gain readership.  Unfortunately, Nightbirds read as if this is what the author did.  The climax was meant to be exciting and suspenseful, but I found it forced.  It was like a poorly-solved problem – the end of the story was satisfactory, but getting there was a circuitous mess.
Nightbirds on Nantucket had a yummy, sea-salty flavor that I enjoyed, but I’m not sure whether today’s young reader would savor it.  I suspect it would be a little slow-moving for my daughter – she may not have patience with the dialects or the historical and political aspects.  On the other hand, kids today like gadgets and technology – they just might be able to swallow the existence of an intercontinental-range gun in the 19th century as easily as the whale swallowed Jonah.


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