Whaling is not a topic that comes up much in the books I read, but this is the second book focused on whaling that I’ve read this year. The first, The North Water, was grim, grim, grim, but I enjoyed the way author Ian McGuire just went for it, filling the book with plot and not ever letting up. Shirley Barrett’s book is altogether different. It’s actually kind of cheerful, despite the fact that it’s a book about hard times and everything falling apart. It has the feel of old-fashioned historical fiction, in which life is hard but happy.
The book is Mary Davidson’s memoir regarding the whaling season of 1908. Mary is middle-aged now, and although this book is focused on that one season, when she was 19 years old, she diverges from the main thread to include memories of her childhood and hints about the intervening years. The book has an improvised quality, as Mary veers off course in her reminiscences, only to stop herself and return to main story at hand.
Mary’s father, George, was a superb whaler, but at the time of Mary’s story, he and his crew were experiencing some hard years. The family was in debt, and every day without a whale brought the family closer to permanent calamity. We know early on that this was not to be George’s last whaling year, but there is a sense that it might be the beginning of the end.
As for the whaling itself, Mary’s descriptions of it are fascinating. George and his crew are guided in their pursuit by a group of Killer whales. The orca will alert George and his crew to the presence of large whales in the vicinity, the cry of “rush oh” will sound, and the Killer whales and men will head out to take down their massive prey. For their efforts, the orca are allowed to feed on the carcass, and when they leave it, the men pull it up and harvest the whale oil. This was an actual real thing! In the afterword, Barrett cites the books she used and quotes from several accounts of orca and man hunting together. I had no idea!
As all of this is happening, Mary is falling in love with a member of her father’s crew, the former Methodist minister, John Beck. There are some mysteries in Beck’s past, but that doesn’t deter Mary. She likes bantering with him, and the feeling appears to be mutual. But Mary’s tone, as a writer looking back, gives the impression that this may not last.
Although a lot happens in Rush Oh! this book doesn’t have a strong narrative drive. There’s no big source of suspense, no single problem to surmount. The book is a slice of life from a particular place and time. The main question I had as a reader was why this year? What happened to make this year the most important? It appears that it may be John Beck’s presence, but perhaps not. We do learn the answer, but I’m not sure it’s important. The point is, this is a kind of life that existed and doesn’t anymore. Mary’s task is to preserve the memory of what it was like to be there. And so she does.