• by Sarah Teach •
This weekend, the second annual Nantucket Book Festival will welcome an eclectic group of writers and the readers who love them. New York-based author Amy Brill will be present with her debut novel, The Movement of Stars, a story based on the life of pioneering Nantucket astronomer Maria Mitchell. It’s been nearly 20 years since Brill first stumbled upon the story of Maria Mitchell. “It was a completely chance encounter,” explains Brill. “I was working in a small bookstore on the Cape, and I decided to take a day trip over to Nantucket. On the ferry, I picked up a tourist flyer and read a tiny squib, ‘Come and see the home of a famous female astronomer!’ I was in my mid-twenties at the time, and I was fascinated by this woman astronomer who had been around my age when she discovered a comet. So I got off the boat; I wandered up Main Street and found her house, and I just stood there for a while staring at it and feeling like I had to know more about this person.”
Though she was years in the making, Hannah Gardner Price was presented to the world this past April. Brill crafted the heroine in The Movement of Stars as a character inspired by Maria Mitchell, but not exactly the same person. Brill explains, “Hannah is like Maria in that she’s a 24-year-old aspiring amateur astronomer on Nantucket. But unlike Maria’s family situation, Hannah lives with just her father. Her twin brother has shipped out on a whaling vessel, and without him Hannah is adrift socially. She’s not prone to social gatherings; she’s awkward around other women, and she’s very serious about astronomy rather than typical women’s group activities.” When Hannah’s father announces he will be moving to Philadelphia to remarry, he expects Hannah—much to her chagrin—to accompany him and find a husband. But on Nantucket, Hannah meets Isaac, a dark-skinned whaler from halfway around the world, and the two of them find a series of unusual connections. Neither Quaker nor native Nantucketer, he is the antithesis of a suitable mate for Hannah. As the pair grows closer, Hannah finds herself questioning her beliefs. Brill says, “Hannah’s journey is really one of self awareness and the whole spectrum of desires, not just physical. And that’s the theme that runs through the whole book, the exploration of human intellectual and emotional desire.”
The Movement of Stars holds great relevance to modern women from any walk of life. Brill says, “A lot of times, women tend to take on caretaker roles. So there is a struggle to balance domestic concerns with personal accomplishments, particularly with women who have families, whether those families include aging parents or young children. Then, of course, there’s the idea of private interest versus public expectation. The book goes over identity formation, and how we shape ourselves as individuals. And that’s really the American story, isn’t it? Making something of ourselves, something that is more than what is expected of us. At the time the book is set in, the whole idea of manifest destiny was coming to a head. Everything was expanding, getting bigger and grander. I think that’s reflected in personal growth, too.”
A tale rich with themes that ring as true today as they did in the 19th century, The Movement of Stars visits all the treacheries of teenage girlhood: nurturing–and rejecting–crushes, enduring teasing, as well as feeling as if one does not belong and the crippling shyness that sometimes accompanies that feeling. Woven into the story are undeniable clues exposing the similarities of 1845 Nantucket and 2013 Nantucket. Even in Maria Mitchell’s day, examining the concerns of those within different layers of social strata juxtaposes the same sorts of issues faced by the modern-day working-class Nantucketer versus the summer resident.
Brill touches on the shadowy fingers of racism and sexism that underscored the hiring practices of Hannah’s era, and that even today, still creep in to choke out opportunities for apt persons. Like Maria Mitchell, Hannah refused to allow stereotypes to dictate her path. Even so, Brill does not envision Hannah as an inspirational character to women alone; instead, Brill hopes that Hannah reaches anyone of any gender who has ever aspired to something bigger than what is expected of them. Brill speaks with a sacred awe as she discusses Maria Mitchell: “She had no interest in taking a back seat to any man when she knew she had the same skill, if not a greater skill. She was the original Lilly Ledbetter!” finishes Brill, referring to Maria Mitchell’s laborious fight during her time as a professor at Vassar College for pay equal to her male counterparts. “Maria Mitchell didn’t stand for nonsense,” Brill says with a twinge of pride reflected in her voice.
According to Brill, it’s not just the human element of Nantucket that hasn’t changed in almost 200 years. “The geography of the island—in spite of development—allows you to still wander through the same little side streets in town that Maria Mitchell did,” says Brill. “On a quiet evening, if you close your eyes or kind of squint, you can still feel and smell and hear the same sorts of things like the gulls calling and the birds singing. There’s a certain stillness born of being 30 miles from the mainland. I think people appreciate the sort of special, isolated aura that Nantucket has. Preservation wise, it’s incredible that so many of the same buildings are still here. The Atheneum, the African Meeting House; the island has such a strong interest in preserving history.” Brill smiles. “That’s what creates this sensibility of things not having changed that much.”
Unlike some of Nantucket’s “beach read” fiction that is pumped out every year with the summer visitor in mind, Brill’s pages are spread thickly with artful expressions of the island’s history. Even still, the book remains an easy and enjoyable read from the historical fiction family. The Nantucket Book Festival opens several doors into Hannah’s world. Join Brill and the Maria Mitchell Association for breakfast in the Dreamland’s Harborview Room on Saturday, June 22, at 8:30 am, and listen as the author reads her favorite excerpts from The Movement of Stars. Tickets are $35 and can be purchased at nantucketbookfestival.org. You can purchase The Movement of Stars from Mitchell’s Book Corner or Bookworks, and on Saturday, June 22, Brill will be at Mitchell’s Book Corner, 54 Main Street, to autograph her book.