by Amy Brill
In 1845, the study of astronomy was very much a male-dominated pursuit. (The fact that it still is generates much hand-wringing to this day.) Indeed, women were not expected or allowed to enter the halls of academia on any level ground with men, despite the examples of many accomplished women scientists. In this deeply-researched novel, we meet Hannah Price, who labors alone, on the island of Nantucket, in a meticulous and tedious search of the sky for a wanderer, a comet that could bear her name and give her entry into the world of science that she loves. That her gender is holding her back, that men expect her to yield to their expectations, is a constant frustration. Her father, also an accomplished mathemetician, expects her to marry. The members of her church, the Society of Friends, expect her to stay sequestered from the greater world. And all expect her to maintain certain barriers of race, as well. For Hannah has also undertaken the astronomical education of Isaac Martin, first mate of a whaling ship, and an Azorean of African descent. Her attraction grows for this passionate man, and she goes back and forth against the constraints of her island culture. She teaches him, and yearns for him. He has faith in her abilities, as do other men, but he also expects her to succeed. Ultimately, a comet opens many doors for Hannah, but she still struggles with her path in life. The culture is slowly changing, and her notoriety helps motivate change on a wider scale. But she is reluctant and uncertain. She is at the mercy of forces outside of herself, and this point is repeated throughout the novel. Despite her independence and determination, Hannah is also somewhat passive, blown hither and yon on the winds of her society, but ultimately to some success. What transpires with Isaac is drawn sensitively and with gentle realism by the author. Hannah Price's passion is both in the stars and down on Earth. It is the restrictive culture of New England, providing both familial comfort and unrealistic encouragement, that eventually needs to change, as does Nantucket Island, from whaling center to vacationland.
Brill extensively mines the significant events of this story from the real life of Maria Mitchell, a trail-blazing astronomer who discovered a comet from the island of Nantucket in the middle of the 19th century. And, despite the presence of many real historical figures, this is not a historical novel in that sense. While Hannah Price is very much like Maria Mitchell, Brill embroiders and bends historical events toward the ultimate theme of her book. She says as much in an extensive afterword, in which she also acknowledges her alterations to the timeline of the history of astronomy. Indeed, the attentive reader will yet pick out one or two errors in science and history, though these are incidental to Brill's story and it would be petty to point those out in detail.
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