Andrea Barrett did not start out to be a fiction writer; she wanted to be a scientist. “I really wanted to be Darwin in a skirt wandering through the Galapagos or the Amazon naming birds and trees,” she says.
Instead, Barrett has translated her fascination with science and the natural world into award-winning novels and short stories, including Ship Fever (1996), winner of the National Book Award for Fiction. Barrett is especially drawn to the history of exploration and the suffering men and women were willing to endure in the pursuit of knowledge. The Voyage of the Narwhal (1998) tells of a harrowing expedition to the Arctic, while in the title story from Ship Fever, a doctor struggles through a typhus epidemic.
Born in 1954, Andrea Barrett grew up on Cape Cod and received her B.S. in Biology from Union College. She is the author seven works of fiction, including, most recently, Servants of the Map (2002). Her awards include fellowships from MacArthur Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives in Rochester, New York.
Excerpt from The Voyage of the Narwhal (1998)
Here was the arctic, Erasmus thought, as the Narwhal moved through Davis Strait and the night began to disappear. Or at least its true beginning: here, here, here.
His eyes burned from trying to take in everything at once. Whales with their baleen-laden mouths broke the water, sometimes as many as forty a day. Belugas slipped by white and radiant and the sky was alive with birds. The men cheered the first narwhals as guardian spirits and crowded around Erasmus as he sketched. With one of Dr. Boerhaave’s excellent pencils he tried to capture the grooved spike jutting from the males’ upper jaws and the smooth dark curves of their backs. Nils Jensen, out on the bowsprit, watched intently as each surfaced to breathe and called back measurements—ten feet long, twelve and half—which Erasmus noted on his drawings.
One day the coast of Greenland appeared, the peak of Sukkertoppen rising above the fog and flickering past as they sailed to Disko Island. A flock of dovekies sailed through the rigging, and when Robert Carey knocked one to the deck Erasmus remembered how, as a little boy, he’d glimpsed three of these tiny birds in a creek near his home, bobbing exhausted where they’d been driven after a great northeaster. This one looked like a black-and-white quail in his hand. Bending over the rail to release it, he saw fronds of seaweed waving through ten fathoms of transparent water. As soon as they anchored at Godhavn he and Dr. Boerhaave sampled the shallows, finding nullipores, mussels, and small crustaceans. Then they saw people, floating on the water and looking back at them.
In tiny, skin-covered kayaks the strangers darted among the icebergs; their legs were hidden inside the boats, their arms extended by two-bladed paddles. Flash, flash: into the ocean and out again, water streaming silver from the blades. The paddles led to tight hooded jackets; the jackets merged into oval skirts connecting the men at their waists to the boats—like centaurs, Erasmus thought. Boat men, male boats. It was all a blur, he couldn’t see their faces.
The Voyage of the Narwhal (1998)
Ship Fever (1996)
The Forms of Water (1993)
The Middle Kingdom (1991)
Lucid Stars (1989)