Norfolk Isle & The Chola Widow by Herman Melville; Published by Nawakum Press

The Chola Widow is one of ten sketches Herman Melville wrote as part of The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles. As such, it is a short piece that can easily be read in one brief sitting. When a story like this gets the fine press treatment, one gets to enjoy reading all the way through the book, literally enjoying it from cover to cover. The story gets to stand on its own without being stuffed into a collection. The press gets to select illustrations, type, paper, and other design aspects that can heighten the impact of reading the story. David Pascoe of the Nawakum Press has certainly done that here.

It starts with the patterned paper used to cover the boards; a seemingly endless series of waves rolling across the cover of the book. The spume from the waves rolling constantly into the shoreline of the Encantadas is probably more whitish than the cream of the mould-made Rives Heavyweight paper but the wave theme plays out as the book opens up and the deckle edge of the paper hints of the appearance of the surf-line along the beach. The masterful illustrations by Rik Olson take us in a progression along with the story. First a birds-eye view of the rescuing ship, followed by Hunilla gazing out to sea and hesitating before finally waving her headscarf and catching the pisco-sharpened eye of one of the sailors. Then we are taken backwards to visualize the “death in a silent picture” that widowed her, and the reed upon which she recorded the days to prove that the oath-bound captain would not be returning to pick her up. The last view of our heroine that Olson gives us is Hunilla sitting stoically in the prow of the longboat pulling away from her home of three long years. Even without reading the text, this book is a joy to flip through.

In our narrator’s first glimpse of Hunilla, he states

“It is not artistic heartlessness, but I wish I could but draw in crayons; for this woman was a most touching sight, and crayons, tracing softly melancholy lines, would best depict the mournful image of the dark-damasked Chola widow.”

Later, after hearing her story, he pays her further tribute:

“As mariners, tossed in tempest on some desolate ledge, patch them a boat out of the remnants of their vessel’s wreck, and launch it in the self-same waves, see here Hunilla, this lone shipwrecked soul, out of treachery invoking trust. Humanity, thou strong thing, I worship thee, not in the laurelled victor, but in this vanquished one.”

So well did Olson infuse her portrait with the spirit of these paragraphs that I believe the narrator would have forgiven him the use of wood engravings and ink.

I read the excellent introduction by John Bryant first, only to find him recommending reading it after the story in the last paragraph of the introduction. No matter. It works either way. He tells us that the reading of “The Chola Widow” is

“…an exercise that prepares us for reading all of Melville from Typee to Billy Budd, and the human condition. The lesson is this: despite Melville’s legendary ability to render the world in concrete detail. He makes us see that what we think we see—man, woman, whale—is a distant mirror of ourselves and all we really can see is the distance between one’s self and the other we hope to know.”

Indeed, in Moby Dick, Melville stuffed so many details pertaining to whales and whaling that many people are put off. One was sometimes tempted to skip the dissertation on cetology and get on with the story. In Chola Widow, there is much more left up to the reader’s imagination and expectations.

I’ve read The Chola Widow cover to cover twice now and anticipate many more readings to come. Many more chances to ponder what heinous events occurred during Hunilla’s years on the island and again in her mind during the silences of her story. Instead of filling in her silences, Melville gives us this, again through the recollection of our narrator:

“If some books are deemed most baneful and their sale forbid, how, then, with deadlier facts, not dreams of doting men? Those whom books will hurt will not be proof against events. Events, not books, should be forbid. But in all things man sows upon the wind, which bloweth just there wither it listeth; for ill or good man cannot know. Often ill comes from good, as good from ill.”

I will definitely be seeking out more of Melville’s other works. If I can find them in a fine press edition that is anything close to this Nawakum Press edition, so much the better for the Whole Book Experience.

AVAILABILITY: The 25 deluxe copies are out of print but I believe that there are still a handful of slip-cased copies available. The Nawakum website has excellent info on the The Chola Widow and many pictures showing the two states. There is also an interesting video of the printing process that is very fun to watch.

NOTE: The Whole Book Experience would like to thank David Pascoe and the Nawakum Press for the generosity that made this review possible.

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