Grass Roots in the Sky

In the same manner that Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried captured the cost of war through the items Vietnam War soldiers kept in their pockets or the way that Anton DiSclafani laid open the lives of the Depression-Era-rich through one girl’s love of horses in The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, Amy Brill’s The Movement of Stars illuminates the stark racial and gender divisions in pre-Civil War America through the story of a young astronomer’s nightly search for an elusive comet. Brill’s debut reminds us that history is first experienced at the micro level, and historical fiction’s keenest offering comes from the stories of individuals, through which we can glean larger truths.   

In 1845, a woman discovering an unclaimed comet in a vast desert of sky was just as likely as her chances of establishing economic freedom. Inspired by the life of the first American female astronomer Maria Mitchell, Brill’s protagonist Hannah Gardner Price examines life along and above the Nantucket seaside through her telescope’s long-range lens until a mysterious shipmate appears on her doorstep. Isaac Martin first arrives to ask Hannah to repair his docked ship’s chronometer, but soon he makes a bolder request: Isaac wants Hannah to teach him the calculations necessary to use a chronometer so that he can become the ship’s first mate. He has ambitions that exceed the opportunities his dark skin affords him, and Hannah–as a young woman living in a conservative Quaker community–understands Isaac’s frustrations.

As their friendship deepens, Hannah and Isaac become two strands of one life. Isaac can travel the world, but has no access to education.  Hannah works at a library full of books, but it’s nearly impossible for her to leave Nantucket alone. Together, their relationship complicates the traditional pairing of mentor and mentee by taking into account the race and gender dynamics of 1845. It’s acceptable for Hannah to be tutored by the illustrious Dr. Hall, but Hannah’s taking on her own pupil, one who isn’t white, threatens to ruin her standing in the town and her prospects for a suitable marriage.

But Brill doesn’t settle for the thrill of the taboo; she also raises larger questions. Are Hannah and Isaac more than the categories their strict communities have shoehorned them into? The answer, of course, is a resounding yes. We witness both of them struggle to break free from social confines, an act which raises the real question: At what cost? The key to blending historical and literary fiction–as Brill does so fluidly–is finding (and telling) a story that becomes a test for contemporary issues that extend beyond the realm of the novel itself. Hannah’s desire for Isaac is a reflection for her desire to discover a comet, an ambition that defies the gender stratification of her society.

This insular society gives the novel its friction, and leads us to considering the importance of place. Nantucket shapes and is shaped by its inhabitants. The Nantucket in The Movement of Stars is Hannah’s Nantucket, a stretch of land she lays claim to even as it betrays her and eludes her attempts at mastery. Good literary historical fiction provides a narrative arc not just for its characters, but for its landscape, its locale, and its people. Brill’s Nantucket is bolstered by an exploitative whaling empire, riddled by complex racial segregation, and ultimately crippled by a town-wide fire before it’s rebuilt. Towns and communities, like humans, are in states of constant evolution. The best historical fiction examines the moments where the story of a person and the story of a place collide.

The novel’s most important contribution comes from its twist on “upward” mobility. As I mentioned, Hannah’s gender hems her in on (almost) all sides. The freedom to travel is a luxury mostly enjoyed by men, and because of this, Hannah keeps to her predetermined orbit, but sets her sights upward toward the sky. This action ultimately becomes her savior: defying narrative expectations for female protagonists, Hannah’s work ultimately saves her, not her relationship with Isaac Martin. Brill’s story is about love, but it is equally a story of ambition. This notion of upward mobility despite one’s defined status offers insight to Brill’s title, The Movement of Stars. For countless nights, Hannah watches the atmosphere in hopes of spotting a comet as it traverses the sky. This comet, the hope of it, is Hannah’s truest mentor, the promise of things to come.

Amy Brill’s beautifully imagined and fully realized setting, characters, and the conflicts between the two prove that the best fiction is never timeless. There’s no such thing. Rather, the best fiction is devoted to its time, casting a prescient eye on the future while reaching forward to pull us into the past.

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