Small towns can be such intriguing settings for books. The high seas have also provided keen adventures for literature. Mix the two together with a bit of historical fact and a wonderful novel will arise from the blank pages. And that is what Rachael Preston has done with The Wind Seller.
When Hetty was a girl, schooners and their square-rigged forerunners moored cheek to cheek across the Halifax waterfront, as much a part of the scene as the Citadel and the town clock, their bows nodding with the swell, masts and rigging criss-crossing the sky from the north-end train station almost all the way out to Point Pleasant Park. Since she moved to the village Hetty has seen the odd ketch stranded, waiting patiently on the mud for the tide to buoy it up again. But never a vessel on this scale. There’s something menacing in the way the schooner, painted black almost to her keel, consumes the wharf she is moored to, the way her bow angles above the horizon as if she’s mounting the bank, threatening to climb ashore.
Drawing closer, Hetty makes out people on the tilted deck, leaning their bodies into the ship for balance, calling to each other; she catches only the cadence, their words hollowed out by the wind. The damage Laura spoke of appears confined to the bow. The jib sails hang shredded amongst twisted ropes and splintered wood, and the bowsprit is but a jagged stump. Perhaps the Esmeralda – Hetty catches the schooner’s name as a gust billows the errant and tangled sails – has been in a collision.
As the path rounds the bow Hetty sees what was hidden from her view before, dozens of people milling about on the wharf. Normally she would avoid such a large congregation of Kenomee villagers, but today Hetty is as curious as her neighbours. And for once she isn’t the focus of their gaze. Some nod at her approach, others step back to let her pass. As she wends her way through the crowd, she catches snippets of the men’s conversation – “widow maker’s snapped right off,” “squall in the bay,” “if she didn’t catch the flood.” The carnival-like excitement in the air, the buzz of speculation, lifts her strange mood.
Preston has quite the story here surrounding the principal two characters; Hetty Douglas and Noble Matheson. Both are confused by the codes of conduct they are suppose to be following in their little Nova Scotian town as the 20th Century unfolds. Douglas is in a ‘marriage of convenience’ and Noble is a casual labourer suffering from a tiresome family life yet dreams of literary glory. Both witnessed the Halifax Explosion and are trying to deal with the horror of the event. Yet all their frustrations seem to take a back turn as the odd schooner and it’s crew come to town.
Butler slaps Noble across the shoulders and holds out the whiskey bottle. A peace offering. “For you, my friend, a swallow of of Scotland’s finest.” In the moonlight Butler’s eyes glitter with menace. Noble licks his lips, which have dried and cracked since this afternoon, and takes the square-shaped bottle from his friend. He recognizes the label. Bushmills.
“This is Irish whiskey.”
“Irish. Scotch. It sure as hell beats Cyrus Warner’s moonshine.”
Corn liquor. Butler got his big mitts on a bottle once but Noble couldn’t take the way it scorched his throat and the lining of his stomach. He wasn’t much of a Scotch drinker to begin with – though Warner’s hooch hardly qualified as such. He liked ale and not much else. Though he’d enjoyed champagne once. Lawson’s doing. They’d shared a bottle during his brother’s leave; it was shortly after Noble’s release from hospital and just before the build-up to Vimy. Lawson told him how what was left of his company had stumbled into a shelled-out village and taken cover in one of the few remaining buildings with a roof. And a wine cellar. Empty but for a dozen bottles of champagne buried under a pile of wood. Five men grateful to be alive and one blissful giddy drunk. Laughter. Bubbles up their noses. The sweet smell of hay in the stable, a welcoming bed. Soft and dry.
Noble raises the Bushmills to his mouth and takes a swallow. His eyes water, but the kick behind his rib cage is welcome, as is the slow, delicious feeling that he’s growing another layer of skin beneath his own. It’s been a rough day. And it’s been a long time. Because of Prohibition, any kind of legal alcohol has been near impossible to get hold of outside Halifax since the war, a fact that doesn’t sit well with a few he can think of, and no doubt a lot more besides, no matter how it might have looked three and a half years ago to the vote-counters. He hadn’t voted himself. Not many had if you looked at the numbers. Mainly the women and those with enough money to lay in a five-year supply before the law changed. Bankers. Lawyers. Doctors.
Preston has captured here the clash of ideals and thoughts that make up the human condition. Urban versus rural. Desires versus norms. Tradition versus progress. Even love versus hate makes an appearance here. Added with a right amount of historical facts and details, a reader is thoroughly engaged with this book.
Whitecaps have gathered in the bay. Waves slap against the sides of the Esmeralda, which in turn rubs and bangs against the wharf. Her jib stays, spanking new, tremble and twang in the stiff breeze. The job boom lifts and drops, and the bow of the schooner shudders and creaks. Noble, intent on his whiskey hunt, ears filled with wind, does not at first hear the footsteps along the wharf. Then he stiffens. Could be one of the crew, or a villager on the prowl for another bottle. He hunkers down in the bushes, heels knocking against the bottle, which he grabs, holding his breath until the person comes into view. It’s a woman, all dressed up in fancy evening attire and carrying some fancy wrap. Hetty Douglas? But then she pulls her hair from her neck and he can see it is Esmeralda.
Esmeralda in a sparkly dress and men’s boots. A contrast that common sense tells him should look absurd but which instead is unsettlingly erotic. The dress, despite lines designed to hide her curves, slithers and shimmers as she moves. Swaying fringe at the hem grazes her thighs. There’s nothing more seductive than a woman unaware she’s being watched, Noble thinks. Was the dress for Butler’s benefit? He hopes not, for Eliza’s sake more than his own. But if Esmeralda has been with Butler, why is she walking back to the schooner alone?
Rachael Preston has brought together a great novel with The Wind Seller. A perfect amount settings, intrigue and historical fact here sets the reader in a enlightening read and a memorable one.