If Ever I Return Again
a novel

A Novel, 197 pages
Published by HarperCollins
July, 2000

A selection of the Junior Library Guild

Selected by the Children’s Book Committee at Bank Street College of Education  “Best Children’s Books for the Year”  (2001 edition)

Selected for “Books for the Teen Age  2001” by The New York Public Library

I could not write for many days. Write! I could not walk or eat or even talk except to moan and wish that I were home or dead or anywhere but here aboard this ship.

October 28, 1856. Twelve year old Celia Snow is on her father's whaleship, the Jupiter, writing to her cousin, Abigail, back home on Cape Cod.

When we left New Bedford it was cold but clear, a fair wind, Papa said. Mother was in her cabin arranging things, but I wanted to be out on deck. I kept my eye on the sweet shoreline till it disappeared from me, bit by bit, till it was just a line. I held it there in my memory long after it was gone. Papa passed me his spyglass and through it I could see what had been lost before. Sometimes in the world maybe there will be a spyglass so strong I could see not just New Bedford, but all the way back home, to you in Eastham, or even as far as our cousins in Salem, and beyond.

During the Jupiter's two-year-long voyage, Celia travels around Cape Horn, to the Sandwich Islands, to the Arctic, and back. She learns about whaling, about navigating, and about becoming a woman. When the journey is suddenly in jeopardy, Celia has to summon new-found strength to save the ship and the lives of those she loves.

whale stamp in ship's logbook

If Ever I Return Again is entirely a work of fiction, yet it had its beginnings in the real-life stories of women who went on whaling cruises. During the middle of the 19th century, it was not unusual for the wives of whaling captains to accompany their husbands on journeys, some lasting as long as three to five years. Their children frequently traveled with them, and some were even born on the ship. Many of these women and girls left behind journals that document their remarkable lives at sea. Their adventures, as well as their accounts of the privations and pleasures of daily life on a whaleship, inspired me to write this novel.

How to Get This Book:

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2. Order it on-line.

Charles W. Morgan
The Charles W. Morgan, Mystic Seaport

Background

If Ever I Return Again had its start when I read the journal of Augusta Penniman, the wife of Captain Edward Penniman of Eastham, and visited her house, now owned by the Cape Cod National Seashore. I discovered that each of the Penniman children had accompanied their parents on whaling voyages, including their daughter Bessie, when she was twelve. On sabbatical from Mt. Holyoke College, I spent the year doing research on nineteenth century whaling, in particular, the lives of women and children who had gone on whaling voyages.

Bowditch's  NavigatorMy character Celia becomes a skilled navigator, so I needed to study celestial navigation. I bought a sextant (mine is a modern one, but the basic design hasn't changed) and an 1853 edition of Nathaniel Bowditch's The New American Practical Navigator, the book every captain -like Celia's father-would have relied on.

By chance, while I was working on this novel, a dead right whale was brought up onto a Cape Cod beach. I was able to stand right beside it, watch scientists cut it apart (using tools actually used in the whaling industry), and experience the smell. It gave me new insight into Celia's life aboard the Jupiter.

My most useful and inspiring reference book was History of The American Whale Fishery, written by Alexander Starbuck in 1877. This weighty volume lists by year the names of all whaling vessels, their captains, their owners, and the results of their journeys, from 1784 through 1876. In the "remarks" column I found a hundred stories--tragedies at sea, and a few miracles. The entry that haunted me was the schooner E. Nickerson, John Pettengill, captain, from Provincetown, which set off on a whaling journey to the North Atlantic in 1857. Under "remarks" it said only: "A missing vessel; captain had wife and two children with him." Records I found in Provincetown have them listed as lost at sea in September, 1857: Captain John Pettengill, 35 years old, his wife, Belinda, 31, and their children Thomas, eight, and Marshall, four.

The title If Ever I Return Again comes from a line in “It Was Pleasant and Delightful,” a song that was popular in that period. It’s Celia’s favorite song that the crew sings, and she writes to Abigail “although I’ve heard it so many times, I always cry at the end when the seaman says farewell to his true love, and we sing along with the last line, ‘And if ever I return again, I will make you my bride.’” (Listen to this song.)

Resources

Two valuable resources for the writing of this book were The New Bedford Whaling Museum (Old Dartmouth Historical Society) and Mystic Seaport. The New Bedford Whaling Museum has a half-scale model of the whaling bark, Lagoda. Mystic Seaport has the Charles W. Morgan, a restored whaleship.

The author on the deck of the Charles W. Morgan
The author on the deck
of the Charles W. Morgan

Reviews

Celia is 12 when she goes to sea with her mother and sea-captain father in 1856.  The book is written as a series of letters to her cousin Abigail in New Bedford, MA.  As whaling journeys took two to three years, letters, which were exchanged during meetings with other ships, played an important role in shipboard life.  Celia is realistically portrayed as she deals with homesickness and seasickness, a crush on the 19-year-old third mate, and her disgust at the smell of boiling whale blubber.  She learns to calculate the number of whales to be caught before the ship can head home, and to navigate.  . . .The girl’s fresh, bright perspective is starkly juxtaposed with the harshness of whaling life and a conniving crew.  Her effervescent personality as expressed in her correspondence makes this a highly accessible work of historical fiction.
   --School Library Journal

 

At the helm of Demas’s historical novel is a courageous and intelligent narrator. . . Celia chronicles her voyage in chatty letters home to her cousin and dearest friend, Abigail.  Celia’s letters pit her independent spirit against her proper mother, who insists on embroidery and Latin studies even at sea.  But although Celia more readily soaks up her father’s lessons on navigation, the novel’s seaworthiness comes in part from the evolution of the relationship between Celia and her mother, who proves to have hidden strengths. The crew and other cast members prove salty, including a sinister first mate named Mr. Grimes; the “despicable” Jerusha Doane, a girl whom Celia meets in Honolulu,; and Nate, the attractive third mate.   -- Publishers Weekly

 

This epistolary tale takes a mid–19th-century child on a 19-month voyage aboard a New England whaler with her mother and her father, the captain. Gathering a small menagerie and a flirtatious young third mate for company, Celia experiences terrifying storms, the gruesome business of whale butchering, long stretches of boredom relieved by birthdays, Christmases, and  occasional stops to gam (visit) other ships. Demas laces Celia's narrative with happy encounters and places her amidst a cast of familiar, well-defined character types, so that her journey is more a coming-of-age adventure than a tally of crushing disasters. Readers will be carried along by the quick pace and the ever-present sense that fortune and misfortune lurk just beneath the next rolling wave.   -- Kirkus Reviews

 In this well-developed novel, Celia and her mother accompany her ship-captain father on a two-and-a-half-year whaling voyage, which Celia describes in letters to her cousin at home in New Bedford, Massachusetts. During the voyage Celia matures into a brave sailor and navigator and changes from her mother's adversary to a confidante and friend. Whaling information is unobtrusively integrated into the narrative.   --The Horn Book

This heartwarming book offers many lessons about life on a whaling ship. . . Hearing this from a young girl’s perspective makes the lessons compelling. This is an excellent book for older elementary school students who will relate to Celia. . .and learn about life in another century.
    -- Daily Hampshire Gazette

 

. . . The letters, very effective in portraying Celia’s character, also record details of life aboard a mid-nineteenth-century whaler, Celia’s relations with her parents, her crush on the third mate, and her longing for home.  . . .Readers who get caught up in Celia’s story will want to see her home.   -- Booklist

Celia is an honest, romantic, naive, but intelligent girl. Influenced by her times, she is shocked by the thought that she, a woman, might want to be a captain herself. Demas was inspired by the actual journals written by women and girls who went on whaling cruises. The result of her research is a quietly adventurous tale of a girl torn between her love for the wild sea and the civilized land. Recommend this title to readers who enjoyed Avi's The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle or the works of Ann Rinaldi.   -- Voice of Youth Advocates

In the News

“Children went to sea on whaling ships.” by Frances Chastain, Springfield Sunday Republican,  March 12, 2000.

“Sojourns, wild water & spunky females:  Cape Cod is setting for new books by Corinne Demas”  by Bonnie Wells,  Amherst Bulletin, June 2, 2000.

   

 

French Language Edition
Published by Bayard Jeunesse
Paris, September, 2002

ISBN 2747004589

translated by Véronique Fleurquin

Order this book online.

Reviews of French Language Edition  

Le livre est bien écrit, avec des lettres courtes et riches en détail sur la vie maritime de l'époque. Les décès successifs, fréquents il y a un siècle, sont à expliquer à l'enfant et donc à nuancer. Un beau récit d'aventure, prenant et facile à lire.   -- www.critiques-lirejeuness.com

Un très bon roman plein de vie et de fougue où pour une fois l'héroïne évolue dans un monde habituallement réservé aux hommes.   -- Inter CDI

Un récite très vivant, riche de rebondissements, qui offre à la fois le souffle du grand large, le plaisir de l"aventure et la découverte d'une personnalité attachante.   -- La Revue de Livres pour Enfants

Ce joli roman épistolaire, bien dans l'esprit et le style de l'époche, est un attachant récit d'apprentissage: Célia grandit au travers des épreuves; son caractère se forge, elle se rapproche de sa mère. C'est aussi une ouverture sur l'univers de la pêche et la vie des baleiniers au XIXe siècle.   -- Livres Jeunes Aujourd'hui

Ce livre est un merveilleux roman d'aventures....Un livre qui séduira tous les pré-adolescents, et surtout, les jeunes filles. L'ouvrage se lit bien, il permet de vivre l'aventure au jour de jour, comme si on lisait un journal de bord, ou plutôt un journal intime.   -- Eure Inter Infos

 

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