farther than boatsteerer, save Absalom Boston—and that had been twenty years ago. When she was a little girl, black men had made up a much larger portion of the whaling crews that came in and out of port, but their numbers had dwindled as recent emigrants from England and Ireland and Germany began competing for the same jobs. And with the country increasingly divided over slavery, race relations were strained even on Nantucket, where free men of every color had lived and conducted business in close proximity to their white neighbors for decades.
Antislavery sentiment was as strong on the Island as anywhere in the Northeast, but Hannah had seen the bruises and welts on those who’d been pelted with rocks and cobblestones and who knew what else at the antislavery convention at the Atheneum just a few years earlier. William Lloyd Garrison, the leading abolitionist, had spoken out against churches’ refusal to denounce slavery. And though the majority of Nantucketers were staunchly opposed to human bondage—it was difficult to find a yard of cotton or a wad of tobacco on the Island—the man’s sweeping indictment of the clergy overcame their civility.
And there was the matter of the Nantucket schools, from which the African children had recently been expelled, reassigned to their “own” school as if they hadn’t been perfectly fine right where they were. The African community had petitioned the Massachusetts state house for redress. Hannah wished the schools committee hadn’t been swayed by the prejudice of what she was sure was a minority of Island residents, but the courts would surely correct their position.
Why should Isaac Martin not learn navigation if he wished to do so? Hannah was reminded of her own thwarted desire to study alongside the young men at Cambridge, the heat of her envy at their easy chatter, their overflowing libraries, the observatory to which they had access every night of their lives, regardless of their aptitude. Lessons lined up in her mind like workers reporting for duty. She sat up in her chair.
“But can you read and write?” she asked, bracing for disappointment.
“Oh. Well, good. And do you know the points of the compass?”
“What about maths? Do you know combinations? Can you reduce a fraction?”
Hannah reached for a volume that had been sitting on her desk for nearly three years, untouched but for the feather duster, and slid it carefully across the desk in front of him, pushing the Pearl ’s chronometer aside to make room.
Bowditch’s American Practical Navigator , it read.
She turned back the green cover. Inside, two names were inscribed:
Hannah Gardner Price Edward Gardner Price
Isaac pointed to Hannah’s name with his long finger and tapped it gently.
“That’s me. And my brother.” She turned the flyleaf over, feeling protective of their names, then paged through one delicate sheet at a time until she reached the first set of exercises. Bringing out a battered copybook with some blank sheets at the back, Hannah put it down in front of Isaac, pressing it open to a clean page and handing over a stub of pencil from a dented pewter cup on the desk.
“You can come once a week, or when you can manage, starting tomorrow. Evenings are probably best. But in the meantime, let’s see what you can do with these.”
She watched him study the page. Reduce 1/5 to a decimal.
Pressing hard on the graphite, he slowly inscribed: 1 √ 5.0 and then stared at it.
Hannah plucked the pencil from his fingers and put a line through what he had done, rewriting it in the reverse: 5√1.0, then handed the pencil back.
“You were nearly right. Go on from there,” she said. He squinted at the page, taking what seemed like a very long time before putting the point of the pencil to the paper.
Isaac inscribed a curvaceous 2 beneath her angular scratches, then placed a careful dot in front of it.
Hannah realized she’d been holding her breath, and as he made his mark, she