THIS WEEK’S OTHER FEATURED BOOKS, “HINENI,” BY JOSHUA MENDEL AND “THE KUDZU KID,” BY DARRELL LAURANT, CAN BE FOUND BY SCROLLING DOWN BELOW THIS POST.
THE BOOK: Sophronia L.
PUBLISHED IN: 2014 (December)
THE AUTHOR: Tim Bridwell
THE EDITOR: Casey Murphy
THE PUBLISHER: Folded Word Press, a small literary press based in Meredith, NH. Their motto: “Exploring the world, one voice at a time.”
SUMMARY: Sophronia Lambert, a schoolteacher on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, lives a quiet life—that is until Nantucket whaling captain James Folger comes ashore. Realizing he is the man who killed her deaf brother, she decides to pursue vengeance—first at home, then at sea—sailing to the far side of the world as his bride.
As she grapples with madness and morality, Sophronia’s quest mirrors that of her island community: to find a way forward amidst the pressures of a brutal industry, a nation mired in Civil War, and a past darker than the ocean’s abyss.
THE BACK STORY: I like writing about people in foreign environments, far from home, yet I’ve been goaded to explore places and characters familiar to me. The place I am “from” is Martha’s Vineyard Island. Raised year-round on the Vineyard, it never seemed like a place I would want to write about; there were always more interesting places for me, and they were all off-island.
Some years away from the States, I began thinking of what makes the Vineyard unique. The first thing that stood out for me was the island’s 19th century deaf community, far larger than anywhere on the mainland. There seemed to be no stigma attached to the condition, with rates of intermarriage between deaf and hearing partners equal to the norm. Their homegrown sign language was widely used by all islanders. Martha’s Vineyard was also highly involved in the whaling industry, from Edgartown, its whaling port to the east, to Gay Head (Aquinnah) on the far western side, home to the Wampanoag tribe with their renowned harpoon skills.
Consolidating these elements, I chose the years 1864-1865, when the Vineyard was touched by—yet still largely buffered from—the American Civil War. Petroleum, discovered five years previously in Pennsylvania, had already begun to replace whale oil in the world’s lamps, contributing to the decline of the once great whaling industry, thus imparting a bit more pathos to the novel’s unfolding voyage.
A great part of my research I garnered from journals, town censuses, maps, and the logbooks of whaling ships, though material filtered through from seemingly unrelated documentaries I had watched, or articles I had read. They may not be aware of it, but my characters recount phenomena such as dark matter in the heavens or the Ganzfeld effect of perceptual deprivation—it all depends on what I was immersed in at the moment.
WHY THIS TITLE? For me Sophronia L. seemed to suggest a document, like a psychological case study. Her last name, “Lambert,” appears throughout the book, with chapters named for her, Uncle Keziah Lambert, and late brother Jonathan Lambert. In the last chapter, taking place seventy-seven years later, the narrator mentions that history has been kind to her, referring to her as “Sophronia L.” for the sake of discretion. I like when the significance of a novel’s title is revealed at the end. It always feels like a bonus to me.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? While not a straightforward historical fiction novel, the history here is solid—I went to great lengths to ensure that. The history of the deaf community on the Vineyard might be of interest as well, as it was a truly unique enclave of tolerance. For a literary fiction audience, the novel has a mosaic structure through its sixty-four chapters, presenting the narrative in third, first, and even a bit of second-person point of view (the opening and closing chapters), which makes it a bit different, I guess. There is also a mystery element, I have been told. There are many ways to engage with the novel.
“The safe and sunny island of Martha’s Vineyard would seem an unlikely place for premeditated murder and vengeance of an epic and biblical sort, but in this absorbing novel Tim Bridwell takes us back to the 19th century, and there finds the Vineyard’s heart of darkness. Sophronia L. is both sea yarn and crime novel, reminiscent in its sweep and darkness of The Innocent Voyage (A High Wind in Jamaica).” — John Hough Jr., Little Bighorn: A Novel (Arcade), Seen the Glory & The Last Summer (Simon & Schuster)
“Tim Bridwell shows again why old New England and its historic whaling industry is a perfect backdrop for a mysterious thriller. Beautifully referenced, historically illuminating, and eerily imaginative, Sophronia L. will hold your attention long after the last page is read.” — John McCaffrey, Two Syllable Men (Vine Leaves Press) & The Book of Ash (Boxfire Press)
AUTHOR PROFILE: Tim Bridwell was raised on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. He graduated from Emerson College with a BFA in film, and is a 2016 MFA in Writing candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. He wrote and directed the feature film Rendezvous in Samarkand and short HAZE (featuring Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs/Twilight Singers), both shot on location in Morocco. His screenplay of Sophronia L. won the “Award for Excellence in Screenwriting” from Cinema City, and the “Golden Lion Award” at the George Lindsey/UNA Film Festival. A trumpeter, he was a founding member of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Tim is a member of the International House of Japan, in Tokyo. He lives in Paris with his wife and two children.
AUTHOR COMMENTS: I am quite happy how the character of Sophronia comes across in the book: a woman raised on Puritanical theology, having few opportunities open to her as a woman, and suffering from mental illness, Sophronia is resolute in her feminist vision. She holds true to her vow to stand up to those who would wield their male privilege against women and children. Of course Sophronia’s free thought has been nurtured by the tolerant community that raised her; I would like to believe utopias like that can still exist in this big bad world of ours.
Chapter 55: Jonathan Lambert
The light from the whale oil lamp is weak, a dense amber robbing the hue from Sophronia’s long, auburn hair, rendering it ashen. So dim is the Captain’s cabin, she cannot even discern a red thread from black. She crosses from the sofa to Folger’s vacant desk. There, mounted to the bulkhead, the lamp pivots within concentric rings, allowing for the ship’s pitch and roll. Turning a tiny brass wheel—searing to the touch—she screws up the wick. With all the oil aboard, stingy Folger never burns a flame higher than is needed to keep his lamp alight; Sophronia finds herself walking in baby steps for fear of inciting a draft capable of extinguishing his vulnerable flame. The fire blazes now—as is her will—blackening the last third of the glass chimney.
Sophronia lifts the glass and lights a candle from the flame. Fire, so easy to spread, is difficult to extinguish, she considers. That is how such a tiny flame can taunt us so, for it coaxes us, soliciting our complicity in its lustful quest for conflagration; perhaps this is what we crave as well. Sophronia recognizes the second shadow joining her there. As she walks to the sofa, her silhouette creeps ‘round the cabin; placing the candle on the floor sends her darkness leaping up the bulkhead behind, swelling to dominate the overhead. She settles herself on the sofa with sewing kit ajar. Folger has been in the bedroom for so long she assumes he must be sleeping; she no longer needs to keep checking the door with such vigilance. Surprising how lax Cap’n can afford to be, considering he remains the target of a shipload of mutineers.
She plucks the stitches from one side of a throw pillow and removes the stuffing: a child’s waistcoat, wadded-up tightly. She lays it on the sofa, pressing its wrinkles flat with both hands. Of course, it was by her grace alone that the scoundrel has been allowed to persevere. Admiring the unfinished piece of brown cotton beneath her palms, she imagines its missing collar and sleeves, always intended to be a coppery madder brown. What a handsome color.
So much daydreaming. Sophronia hasn’t heard the Captain enter from the bedroom. He’s there now, positively scowling at the small waistcoat, as if it wore a face, grimacing back at him. A tuft of his gray hair falls forward, square jaw clenched, beard quivering.
“Who’s that for?”
“Jonathan.” As that name leaves her tongue, so follows the realization: now it is all over. Her stratagem, for its many failings, can no longer be pursued, for Jonathan Lambert’s sister sails on this ship and that can mean only one thing: vengeance has come calling. Unmasked in the dancehall, couples can never be what they once were, for better or worse. One can quickly re-don the mask, but the fact remains …an image in one’s memory.
If the Lord walks by her side then she may have a chance. She has felt Him there with her so far; now is no time for doubt. Sophronia proceeds with caution. A falsehood. “Paolo… the cabin boy.” She kneads the wrinkled garment. “It was meant for him.” What was meant for him? Poison? No, that was meant for you Folger. She really shouldn’t use that poor boy’s name in her ruse, Sophronia considers too late.
Before she can judge the merit of this lie, Folger snatches it from her hands, wadding up the brown fabric in his fists. “Best over the side with this, too.” He exits, making his way up the aft staircase. Something about that name, Jonathan…
On deck, Folger approaches Second Mate Swain standing first watch near the ship’s bow. The waistcoat is bunched in Folger’s
weathered fist, the feel of clean fabric quite agreeable against the skin.
Swain flinches, bracing himself as the Captain approaches. Ever since their failed mutiny attempt, Swain and Third Mate Smith have been on tenterhooks, heedful of their Captain and the likelihood of reprisals. Both men have had their watch rotations canceled and, until further notice, have been put on fixed watches. At first the assignment of night watches seemed a purely punitive measure; Swain was given the 20h00 to 00h00 first watch and Smith the 00h00 to 04h00 middle watch—both starboard side. The more Swain thinks about it, and considering how Folger’s mind works, the more sinister the whole affair seems to him. On larboard watch with both mates, Folger has selected only foreigners, Chileans and Western Islanders, none of them very proficient in English nor credible as witnesses, should the need arise. At midnight, as Swain is relieved by Smith, the Captain could easily send them both over the side—that open starboard side adapted for cutting whales—snare them to some ballast, for instance. The Captain has demonstrated to all aboard his ability to lift the blacksmith’s anvil above rail; that would easily send two men to the bottom. The ‘Gees would likely have fallen asleep at seven bells and the Chileans be half an hour late for their watch, giving the Captain a good hour free of witnesses. Folger has arranged the perfect crime; what makes it so perfect is that this scenario has already been played out many times in the mates’ heads without the Captain ever having to lift a finger. He has created an oppressive pretext, Swain judges.
“Captain Folger,” Swain answers, quickly stepping clear of the ship’s side as a precaution.
“Do you remember back on your first voyage… that insolent lil’ snip of a cabin boy.”
Swain guards his silence. Where will this be going, or more likely, where will this be taking him? At the moment he is alone on deck with Folger. Eight bells, which brings on Smith, is still twenty minutes off. The Captain is early, uncharacteristically off-schedule.
“Oh, you know who I’m talking about, you do,” implores Folger. “You threw him over for me.”
“Yes,” of course Swain remembers something as heinous as that. “It was Jonathan… the family name I can’t recall though.”
The Captain’s eyes widen. “I believe I do.” The Captain tosses the waistcoat over the side. Swain watches it ride the ship’s wake back, weaving and bobbing, spinning and rolling in the spume like a child’s toy as it outpaces Folger, now creeping aft towards the skylight. The Captain peeks in on Sophronia below, sewing by candlelight.
Sophronia Lambert. Keziah Lambert. Jonathan Lambert. So damned-many Lamberts.
On the roof of the after-house, near the starboard boat, the Captain finds a wooden line tub; within, harpoon line is neatly spiraled. He slings the heavy shot of manila cordage over his shoulder and heads below.
Bursting through the door Folger catches Sophronia off-guard, doubled over as if concealing something, though her arms cradle nothing. He throws the coiled line down on her, dropping her to the floor under its weight. Pinning her there, he stuffs the cushion cover into her mouth as a gag. The first loop of rope he runs between her teeth and around the back of her head, secured with a quick overhand knot. Employing an elaborate series of chain hitch knots, he ties both her arms together as one, arching her shoulders back. Working methodically, he continues this pattern down her legs until she is effectively crippled, twenty-one knots running head to heel.
The Captain pauses, still straddling her prone body from behind, pressing hard against those bulbous knots and the stiffness of the taught rope; he feels a tightness, a thrum, a tumescence in his crotch. This is something he feels only with women like this, like she is now and the others were before. He grinds himself down upon the rope; her body soft below, gives under his weight, drifts with the shifting of his pelvis, moving in slow, spreading circles. Only like this, in these times, does he allow Spermatorrhea to occur, not holding back, for it is an inevitable consequence, not a willful act like that committed by Onan, son of Judah, who elicited the full wrath of the Lord when he spilled his seed upon the ground. For Folger it all happens in a haze, a veil of ecstasy, affording him a few, brief moments—sacred moments—to vacate this foredoomed body of his.
Water purifies and water removes; it flows from here—the present—to another place, flowing into the future, as does time. Cleaning himself up at the washbasin he can see through the open bedroom door to Sophronia’s ankles and that 21st knot. Washing down his male organs beneath the pitcher’s cascade, Folger considers that he has never once used these parts for the purpose God intended. They never quite functioned in that capacity, so there was really no use in trying, was there?
Water… it had always been kind to him; the more water he could put between himself and his problems, the better. Problems far behind and far below the surface were easily forgotten: water has always had that property. The Captain imagines the river Lethe, waters of oblivion running through Hades, bestowing forgetfulness upon all who drank from them. How kind.
An enormous amount of water lies between him and Nantucket.
As he exits the cabin, the first two bells ring out above. He double-locks the door: third and fourth bells. In his pallid fist he clenches the key, climbing the aft stairwell under the fifth and sixth bells. He steps on deck, pausing in reverence as the last two bells sound. Eight bells of first watch: it is midnight. As the Captain approaches, Swain slips behind the foremast, offering scant protection for one so stout as he.
“Second Mate, I’ll relieve your watch.”
“Captain, it’s not my watch,” Swain wags his finger to Third Mate Smith, just coming forward.
“Smith stands middle watch now,” Swain says.
The Third Mate approaches. Sighting the Captain, his steps slow, a slight hobble emerges in his gait, vestige of an injury long healed.
“Smith, I’ll have your watch tonight.”
Caught completely heedless, Smith tries his best to read Swain’s anguished features.
“The wife… a bit ill actually. I prefer to leave her to her proper recovery,” the Captain says, softening his demeanor.
“Nothing serious, one hopes.”
Folger’s left eye twitches a wild spasm, which he quells with a wink.
“Nothing for you to worry about.”
* * *
Returning to his Menemsha workshop, Keziah drops his bag to the floor, raising plumes of sawdust. He tosses his coat on the workbench, clearing a halo of shavings, sent airborne around it. The dust settling about him, Keziah skims the pages of his notebook, trying to make sense of it all: Folger, the three wives, and now his niece. If only he could connect one event to another, one person to another. The question that nags him the most now is, how could Sophronia have been dragged into such a dangerous affair as the result of a chance meeting; a stranger stops in an unfamiliar town to ask for directions, yet bypasses the local post office altogether, heading instead for a primary school. Is this the sort of thing a man does by happenstance? Can it be by coincidence that the man who murdered Jonathan Lambert meets his sister on a random stroll, all the while seeking out his victim’s uncle?
Keziah crosses to the far corner of the workshop. From deep
inside the storage bin he pulls a stiff canvas duffle. Across the workbench he spills out Jonathan’s possessions, presented to him that horrid day on Osborne’s Wharf by the Eliza Jane’s mate. At the time he was offered only three words; a mere three words to serve as both explanation and justification: “lost at sea.” On the bench before him are Jonathan’s shipping articles, a jaundiced, dog-eared sheet of paper signed by Keziah, Folger and the boy. No surprise his nephew’s lay or share of the whale oil was a paltry 1/250th. Buried in the scrawl of longhand he finds the phrase “payment of all sums contingent on contractee’s physical presence amongst the quick, and on American soil.” That conveniently ruled out the dead and deserted amongst his ranks, allowing Folger to cut himself a little bit bigger slice of the pie …all said and done.
Then there was Jonathan’s knife, hopelessly rusted over in its brittle, desiccated sheath; once a keen and handsome blade, it was a gift from Keziah on the day he shipped out. With it, came some advice; the moment you feel death along, your hand should have already found this knife: to remain alive, this is the reflex a sailor must possess. If you feel yourself fouled in line—be it harpoon cordage fast at a whales’ back or some odd scrap of rigging cutting through your leg, pulling you over the ship—your arm must already be one with the handle, blade moving towards its target. Keziah thinks of the greater implications of those words, for the same reflex could have caught that bastard Folger off his guard and plugged well through.
What else did the boy leave behind in this world? There is a paltry ball of twine, likely assembled scrap by scrap from oakum, strands of old rope picked apart and used for caulking the ship’s seams. Keziah remembers the tedium of caulking a leaky old ship with this oakum soaked in pine tar, pounded into the seams using chisel-like caulking irons and huge wooden mallets. Occasionally the ship would be turned on its keel, hove-to on its side so they could caulk below the waterline.
The last item there was surely dearest to Jonathan: an oval brass locket and chain. Keziah watches his delight grow, his face reflected off the shiny brass cover. He races to his desk where a matching locket has hung for months; framed within is a tintype photograph of Sophronia, the sepia tone faithful to her hair’s natural hue, he judges, though the image is hazy at best. On the eve of Jonathan’s sailing, Sophronia entrusted one locket to the boy and another to Uncle Keziah.
He brings his locket back, laying it side by side with Jonathan’s, as if reuniting someone with someone and not merely some things. He opens Jonathan’s locket.
The photo is missing.
* * *
Standing on his bed, the Captain dislodges a small gray oval wedged beneath the telltale compass on the overhead. It is a photograph of a young woman, confiscated some years ago from the men in the forecastle. It seems this tin oval was quite coveted for the absolute perfection of its subject. For Folger this woman didn’t just represent a comely visage—the object of every man’s fancy—for him she was Woman, source of life, protector of us all… the she referred to when a man speaks of his ship. In spite of its bleary quality or perhaps by virtue of the same, this image transcended one of any specific woman. It was the ideal. He had cherished it all these years as a talisman, and so, had situated it beneath the dial of the compass to guide them to safe and prosperous waters.
When he met Sophronia by chance that day—chance or fate, he is not so sure of now—her pure beauty recalled the ideal pictured here, effectively overwhelming the Captain. Somehow, to have this woman watching over his voyage just felt right, regardless of how repugnant the principal of a whaling wife seemed to him. Turning the photo over, he reads the inscription barely legible upon the back. Only now does the word make sense. Now it is clear to whom this photo belonged and of whom it depicts.
A sudden melancholy curtails his elation, drains him, drops him to the edge of the bed, where he sits low and bone-weary. He has just lost his guardian angel: the she of his ship is just another bitch. Just like the others. The Captain’s lips tremble as he says their names aloud for the first time, muttered in monotone, sacred, like a Latin prayer: “Eliza. Mary. Sarah.” All vowed before God to love him. All lied.
Folger’s mind goes blank, and in that void, a whisper, a familiar voice, and a name: Rachel. “Rachel,” he repeats, his voice crisp and clear; hearing it outside his skull like that makes it easier to believe that she actually did exist. He hadn’t spoken his mother’s name since the day he buried her.
Now this one. The Captain rubs the backside of the photo with his calloused thumb, as if it were possible to just erase the word there, scribbled in pencil by a boy’s hand: “Sister.”
LOCAL OUTLETS: If you find yourself on Martha’s Vineyard, there is no better place to pick up a copy of Sophronia L. than the wonderful Bunch of Grapes Bookstore. http://www.bunchofgrapes.com/book/9781610191050.
WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Sophronia L. is available from both Amazon and Barnes & Noble, of course, but why not support your local bookseller and order through Indiebound? http://www.indiebound.org/book/9781610191050
CONTACT THE AUTHOR: