The Movement of Stars by Amy Brill (Riverhead Books; 400 pages; $27.95).
“For when I cannot observe, it is as if the great beauty and order and Truth of the Heavens does dissolve and I sense only my own wretchedly small place,” Hannah Gardner Price, the intrepid and unforgettable heroine of The Movement of Stars, Amy Brill’s magnificent debut, writes. Hannah is constrained by both her Quaker faith and by her sex in 1840s Nantucket, an era and a locale that come to vivid life in Brill’s hands. More than anything else in the world, the young Quaker woman yearns to discover a comet.
Maria Mitchell, the first female astronomer in America, inspired Brill to write The Movement of Stars. For Brill, this novel is a fifteen-year odyssey and one that is close to her heart. Although Brill started out hoping to write a biography of Mitchell, the astronomer grew to become “a leaping-off place for the journey of a character” of Brill’s own creation: Hannah Gardner Price. Hannah and Mitchell may share many things, but Hannah is an invention of Brill’s imagination and the driving force behind The Movement of Stars.
As Brill illustrates, Hannah loves living on the island on Nantucket. “Her sand and shallows, salt and sawgrass, were as much a part of her as the tribal tattoos that marked the whalers from South Pacific islands far distant. Whenever she was off-island, Hannah felt diminished, invisible as stars veiled by the bright clamor of the city.”
Hannah’s feet may be firmly planted on Nantucket soil, where she is bound by religion and gender, but she is a wanderer at heart, whose face is forever turned towards the heavens. And it is easy to understand why. Her father “would decide her future, because it was his right.” She may as well, she thinks, “be a servant.”
“Rooted in place,” Hannah thinks she can “feel the Earth spinning on its axis, while she remained stuck in place, pinned to its surface by the invisible, unseen force of gravity itself.” The rigid rules of the Quakers suffocate Brill’s unconventional protagonist, triggering Hannah’s feelings of powerlessness when it comes to charting the course of her own future.
In contrast to Hannah and her position, the stars are immense, significant, and commanding, which is part of their allure. Since nothing changes in her own life, she looks for variations in the night sky. Her future is set; her place in society and in Nantucket itself appears static, while the stars keep moving. How Hannah envies them.
The heavens allow Hannah to transcend the smallness of her existence and may be a way to navigate the path of her own life.
If only she can discover a comet, that is. With the detection come prestige and a gold medal from the king of Denmark. No woman has ever found a comet before, and Hannah longs to be the first.
When a series of revelations and catastrophes rock Hannah’s world, she must decide who she is and what she wants. It is a dark-skinned sailor from the Azores who truly helps her find her true North. Isaac Martin’s character works as an effective catalyst to force Hannah to question and challenge everything that is known and comfortable to her. Without him, she may never have sought a new orbit. Hannah may be Isaac’s teacher, but he teaches her, as well. He is much more than just a love interest in Brill’s novel.
Especially when he illuminates something that is astonishing to Hannah. They are alike—he is limited by his race just as her world is compressed by her faith and womanhood. “We are not so different,” Hannah thinks of Isaac and herself. “Neither one of us is welcome here [in Nantucket].
In addition to producing richly drawn and fully realized characters, Brill’s Nantucket setting makes the years fall away as she transports readers to the picturesque island. I have never been to Nantucket but I could see the conflagration that threatened the town; I could smell the salty air; I could hear the sounds of bells; I could taste the gravy Hannah mopped up with her biscuit. That’s why fans of historical fiction will love this expertly-researched story just as I do.
Brill writes her debut with precision, lyricism, and clarity. The Movement of Stars is a gorgeous and moving story amplified by the author’s handsome prose and stunning use of metaphor. Brill describes Isaac in this way: “Grease stains shaped like continents mapped his hands and his forearms.” Isaac says his body is “like an old ship now…cracking and creaking.” When Hannah looks out over a bluff, she feels “like a surveyor at the boundary of the New World.” Passages such as these make The Movement of Stars engaging and utterly absorbing.
Hannah Gardner Price is unafraid to reach for the stars. Brill triumphs when she gives us a character to root for and to applaud, a heroine who, in her extraordinary courage, defies the standards of her day, a fiery woman who radiates with willpower and intelligence. Like the comet she discovers, Hannah is a trail-blazer, one who readers will never forget.