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The Ghost of the Mary Celeste: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 28, 2014

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Editorial Reviews Review

About the Writing of The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, by Valerie Martin

I first read about the ghost ship the Mary Celeste when I was in fifth grade – I think it must have been an article in the Weekly Reader, the children’s newspaper my school subscribed to and which I looked forward to with modest excitement every Friday. I’m sure the article barely sketched out the story - a ship sighted drifting at sea in some sort of trouble, with no sailor at the helm; the boarding of the Mary Celeste by the anxious crew of a passing ship; the discovery that there was no one aboard; the evidence that the crew had left on the ship’s boat and in a hurry; and the perplexing problem - the mystery - of their motive for abandoning the ship, which was fully provisioned and in seaworthy condition. “Fit,” as one of the salvers would testify in the salvage hearing at Gibraltar, “to sail round the world.”

A few years ago, by accident and I’m still not sure where, I learned that the missing crew of the Mary Celeste included the captain’s wife and his baby daughter. This detail caught my attention because I was under the impression that sailors considered women aboard ships bad luck. I began some superficial research about the subject – trawling a few nets in the wake of the Mary Celeste, and quickly uncovered a world I’d never dreamed of.

Throughout the 19th century, women regularly sailed on the vessels that plowed the seas, and it was not uncommon for children to be born aboard ship. Especially on whalers, which would be out at sea for years on end, wives took the opportunity of going along with their husbands. One whaling captain delivered all five of his children on his ship, and some of these learned to walk on a deck before they put their little feet on land. The captain’s wife and family were such an ordinary component of seagoing commerce that the sailors had a name for ships with a wife and children in the aft cabin – they called them “hen frigates.”

When a captain married, the couple might combine his business with their pleasure and take a honeymoon trip. This was the case with Capt. Benjamin Briggs and his wife Sarah Cobb Briggs, who sailed to Genoa shortly after their marriage in Marion, Massachusetts. In the fall of 1872, Benjamin Briggs purchased a one/fifth interest in a newly fitted ship and signed on to sail her to Messina, a trip that would take about three months. Sarah Briggs, who disliked sailing, decided to join him, taking their two-year-old daughter along. As she wrote to her mother-in-law, “Going to sea in itself considered is anything but agreeable, at least to me, but if Benja must go I would gladly go when I could.” On October 26, having shipped ahead her melodeon, sewing machine, two boxes of music books, toys, and clothes for herself and her daughter Sophia, she took the train to New York and joined her husband at Pier 8 to board their ship the Mary Celeste.

Before long, investigation of the events that followed turned up an unexpected name: Arthur Conan Doyle.

The future creator of Sherlock Holmes was a boy when the Mary Celeste was recovered and doubtless followed the news stories about the salvage trial in Gibraltar that appeared in the British and American press. Twelve years later, when he was a struggling young doctor in Edinburgh, Doyle published a story in the Cornhill magazine that purported to be a true account of the lone survivor of the Mary Celeste. Though Doyle altered the name of the ship and changed the captain’s name, the public’s imagination was fired by this tale and to this day certain details entirely invented by the young Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle, who longed to make his way as a writer, continue to be attached to new accounts, fictional and otherwise, about the famous ghost ship, the Mary Celeste.

Even a superficial study of the life of Arthur Conan Doyle bangs up against the 19th century Spiritualist movement, which was spawned in upstate New York and quickly spread across the country and abroad. The craze for mediums, séances, spirit writing, spirit photography, spirit guides, table turning, apparitions, and the materialization of ectoplasm excited the interest of a credulous public, as well as an alarming number of prominent and intelligent men and women. Horace Greeley, Alfred Russel Wallace, William James and his brother Henry James, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln and even Queen Victoria indulged in séances and clairvoyant lectures. Many of these notables were ultimately disabused of their fascination, but Arthur Conan Doyle became a committed Spiritualist. He gave up writing and spent the last five years of his life traveling the world to spread the good news that life is continuous and that the dead only wait for our attention to make themselves known again.

These three elements, a ship found sailing without a crew, a famous writer on the verge of enormous success, and the rise of an unorthodox and heretical religious fervor, began to work in my imagination, and I knew I was on the track of an historical novel. In my researches the fantastic and the banal, the absurd and the tragic seemed woven into an intricate and radiant fabric, one spun from facts and fictions in much the same way everyday life spins out, one story generating another, a thread disappearing in one corner and reappearing surprisingly near the center.

From Booklist

Martin’s latest novel delves into the lingering questions surrounding the Mary Celeste, an American brig found drifting, intact but abandoned, in the open Atlantic in 1872. Eschewing a traditional linear narrative for an unconventional yet far more effective structure, Martin creates what seem at first to be loosely connected vignettes. Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote a sensationalist tale about the ship’s fate in his youth, appears at several different points in his life, and a journalist crosses paths several times with an enigmatic medium she hopes to debunk. It progressively becomes clear that their stories link in multiple ways with the Briggs family of Marion, Massachusetts, many of whom died at sea. Characterization is first-rate, as is the historical sensibility. Subtle undercurrents of impending tragedy create a disquieting effect throughout, a fitting atmosphere for a work about a society preoccupied with making contact with deceased loved ones. The scenes of maritime disasters are realistically terrifying. A haunting, if sometimes slowly paced, speculative look at a long-unsolved maritime mystery and the unsettling relationships between writers and their subjects. --Sarah Johnson

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese; First Edition edition (January 28, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385533500
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385533508
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.2 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (108 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #340,753 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Elspeth G. Perkin on February 2, 2014
Format: Hardcover
The Ghost of the Mary Celeste is an entertaining interweaving of multiple viewpoints and narrations that are all tethered to the unsolved mystery of the fate of the small crew aboard the Mary Celeste. The novel dives right into a suspenseful introduction that then branches off into a narration regarding a family's entangled tragedies. The story then moves from feminine to masculine back to feminine viewpoints with presentations of characters and openings of chapters using portions of journal entries, news articles, novel excerpts, court documents and theological based poems.

A little patience is asked of the potential reader, the beginning chapters may seem disorganized and the constant shifting viewpoints may cause excitement and interest to wane and wander over to another novel, but please do not give up. After the foundation is set, the viewpoints and narrations create a unique entertaining tale that involves the fascinating practices and fashion of spiritualism in the 19th century and the downfall of the mode. Chapters revolving around a celebrated author who has his own connection to the mystery of the Mary Celeste may interest the potential reader who enjoys a well arranged cameo appearance of historical individuals. There is also a charming tender romance that makes a small appearance and leads to additional empathy tied to the fate of the crew of the Mary Celeste. Above all, this is a mystery and the unknown is weaved expertly together and will keep the reader guessing until the end.

Reviewed in February 2014, review written February 2014/ copy of THE GHOST OF THE MARY CELESTE borrowed from local library
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Miss Barbara TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 24, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The Ghost of the Mary Celeste is a well written work of speculative fiction by Valerie Martin. The author has been able to persuasively weave three story lines into a captivating novel.

The first string concerns the seafaring family of ships master Benjamin Briggs who was missing and presumed lost, along with his wife and child when the Mary Celeste was discovered abandoned and adrift near the Spanish coastline. The background and families of the husband and wife is explored compelling the reader to empathize with their plight.

While the stage is being set for the final voyage of the doomed family the author introduces the craze and enthusiasm that sweeps the East Coast bringing Spiritualism into vogue. The dichotomy of belief within the two families led by a Christian cleric and the sister of Mrs. Briggs offers a level of understanding into the people and times of the last half of the 19th century.

The final segment of the story introduces Sir Author Conan Doyle who is still an unknown and traveling to Africa. It is on this voyage he starts his serious writing career.

Author Valerie Martin weaves these three threads into a story that keeps the reader intrigued and captivated. It was so realistic that upon finishing I went to a website of the Mary Celeste mystery to find out how much was true, how much was conjecture and how much was straight up balderdash. I enjoyed this novel and would recommend it to all.
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21 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Barbarino VINE VOICE on January 20, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I had a difficult time with this novel. The first hundred pages are broken up into five parts. The first part describes the sinking of the ship the ‘Early Dawn’, in 1859 and the drowning death of two people on the ship. The descriptions were vivid, and the writing was very good. I was pulled into the story, then disappointed when it abruptly ended after twelve pages. The narration is then taken up by journal writings from Sarah, who is the niece of the couple who drowned, her journal is dated May 1860. She details her family history and the concerns she has for her sister, Hannah who believes she sees the ghost of their mother. This narration goes on for 46 pages and abruptly ends with the most exciting event described in the entire journal. The story is then taken up with four pages of documents concerning the recovery of the Brig Mary Celeste in 1872. The fourth part describes some of Arthur Conan Doyle's time as ship doctor on the S.S. Mayumba in 1881. I enjoyed this perspective the most, I really enjoyed reading details the author included about Doyle's family life. It won't surprise you to learn that we don't stay with Doyle for long, only 29 pages this time, then we are taken three years ahead in time and told of a fictional account of a survivor from the Mary Celeste.

I didn't care for all of the brief disjointed parts, it gave the book a very uneven feel. I dislike short stories and this novel felt like a grouping of related but very distinct short stories. If you like historical fiction and you like to read short stories the telling of this story might be something you'd enjoy. Unfortunately, I didn't care for it and only made it a third of the way through the book.
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18 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Trudie Barreras VINE VOICE on November 30, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is an intricately crafted novel. Several things would have made it more accessible to me, including a "family tree" of the interlocking relationships between the characters (the Gibbs, Briggs, and Cobb surnames are confusing) and perhaps a timeline. Obviously, the circumstances surrounding the maritime disasters that culminated in the weird case of the Mary Celeste and the conflicting legends are rich soil for the seeds of a splendid story, and Valerie Martin gives us exactly that.

The character of Hannah, who is later understood to be Violet Petra, is a beautiful portrait of the development of an authentic spiritual medium, and the pitfalls awaiting such a personality. The journalist Phoebe Grant is likewise presented in depth, as a sympathetic skeptic. The interaction between them, and thereby the "dance" between those who believe in psychic phenomena and those who don't is beautifully portrayed.

This book was for me a strong antidote to my own perhaps over-romanticized notion of the joy of sailing in the era before satellite navigation and radio communication. I was also rather fascinated at the depiction of "family sailing" - it would not have occurred to me without Martin's narrative that there actually were captains who took their wives and children along on this type of voyage, and the oft-resulting tragedy.

In all, though I found this book an intriguing read, beautifully written with a flavor of the literary style of the time, so that the "diary excerpts" appeared to be absolutely authentic, I can't say that I found it deeply satisfying. That is perhaps because I am too dedicated to "happy endings" and put off by "loose ends" in the novel format.
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