Nantucket Great Fire
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An Idea Sparked

Daughters of Nantucket

by Suzanne Daub

“It’s July 1846 on Nantucket, and it hasn’t rained for weeks. Every great fire begins with a tiny spark. All Nantucket needs now is for someone to light the fuse.”

photo by Anne Holden
photo by Anne Holden

Julie Gerstenblatt’s first historical novel is all about fire. Set just before, during, and immediately after Nantucket’s Great Fire of 1846, Daughters of Nantucket tells the stories of three brave island women with fire in their hearts.

Eliza, Meg, and Maria are Gerstenblatt’s main characters: strong women with secrets and desires who are trapped by society and circumstance. “The 1840s on Nantucket are fascinating once you know about the social, political, and racial issues that were happening here,” Gerstenblatt explained. “Plus there is the backdrop of the Great Fire of 1846. So I thought why not create several women in town who are all linked and have their personal dramas come to a climax just as the fire hits?”

An educator, a writer, and a longtime visitor to Nantucket, Gerstenblatt was inspired to write this book after reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s Away Off Shore, where there is mention of The Great Fire, “and I sincerely mean just a mention. A whisper. Two paragraphs on page 13. But that’s all I needed to get my imagination going, to wonder what might it have been like to witness such a thing…” From this spark of an idea, she started to research which “led me to buy up every book I could on the subject, which turned out to be just one book…once I read about the fire, I got this tingly feeling all over, and I could picture it coming to life on the page…it was one perfect narrative as a jumping off point for my novel.”

Gerstenblatt decided to write about three women because of something her mother used to tell her: “she said ‘threes are hard’, two characters are not enough to make it messy and interesting. With three you’re constantly moving as a reader and get to explore more.”

The first character she fleshed out was Eliza. “I assumed that I would write about a captain’s wife because that’s primarily who I knew about from history… one of those women who lived in a big house on upper Main Street,” she explained. “Then I thought: who would be a good foil for Eliza, and I thought of Maria Mitchell: she was independent, nontraditional, made her own money. And when I did more research and found details about the thriving Black community on Nantucket and the history of segregation here, I thought I had to include that. I made up a character who had a similar experience to actual historic women.” She started her research for this novel in fall of 2018; began writing in the spring of 2019; and by the spring of 2021 the book was finished. “To write, I’ve got to be sitting for several hours with no distractions at home in front of my computer, preferably in the morning. I try to write about 1,000 words every day. I give myself a check, or a check-plus, or a check minus—I was a teacher—and I set goals. It’s a job, and I treat it as such.”

Her agent sent the book out over the summer of 2021. “Most rejected it.” During her annual vacation on Nantucket, Julie got a call from her agent: someone was interested but wanted to see revisions. After careful consideration, she made a few adjustments to her manuscript, but that publisher turned it down. Believing in Daughters of Nantucket, her agent sent it out again. It was the end of October of 2021 that Gerstenblatt found out that her book was sold. “One stormy day the power went out, and I fell asleep. When I woke up, the power was back on, and I checked my email. Harper Collins was interested in the book! It felt very satisfying.”

Daughters of Nantucket lit a spark in Gerstenblatt’s imagination, and she’s already working on a sequel that starts five years after Daughters ends. “When I was writing this book, one big revision was that I had cut out a friend of Eliza’s…to ‘kill a darling’ it’s called: eliminate a character that no longer served the narrative… I had this whole story for Nell Starbuck that got reduced to a single sentence and gave that friendship stuff to Maria.” In her second novel in the series, Gerstenblatt will tell Nell Starbuck’s story of circumnavigating the globe with her whaling captain husband.

Julie Gerstenblatt and her family still vacation on Nantucket every summer, but after writing her novel, she looks at the island differently. “I walk Main Street now, and I see both time periods overlap…I feel like I have more of an appreciation for the place. So many people love Nantucket, but they never saw it that way. I want more people to see the romance.”

Julie Gerstenblatt will be meeting readers and signing copies of Daughters of Nantucket at Mitchell’s Book Corner on Main Street from 10:30 to 12 noon Saturday, April 29.

Articles by Date from 2012