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The Rathbones Reader’s Guide

By Janice Clark

The Rathbones by Janice Clark


The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of The Rathbones, Janice Clark’s remarkably engrossing and distinctive debut novel. If you’re not a member of a book club, consider starting one up with your family or friends—The Rathbones is a rich, discussion-worthy read.

Please be advised: this guide contains spoilers for the book.


Mercy, fifteen years old, is the last of the Rathbone whaling clan. Her father has been lost at sea for nearly ten years—ever since the last sperm whale was seen off the coast of Connecticut. As Mercy’s memories of her father grow dimmer with each passing day, she spends more of her time in the attic hideaway of her reclusive cousin Mordecai. But when a strange and threatening visitor turns up one night, Mercy and Mordecai are forced to flee and set sail on a journey that will bring them deep into the haunted history of the Rathbone family.

From the depths of the sea to the lonely heights of the widow’s walk; from the wisdom of the worn Rathbone wives to the mysterious origins of a sinking island, Mercy and Mordecai’s enchanting journey will bring them to places they never imagined possible.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Please be advised: this guide contains spoilers for the book.

The Rathbones
presents a very vivid description of whaling in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Discuss the impacts of the whaling life on childhood, family structure, and personal choice that are presented in the novel. What do you think that kind of life must have been like?

2. Examine the character of Moses Rathbone. From where did his mystical connection to whales originate? What were his goals? Do you agree with the way he went about achieving them?

3. Why do Mercy and Mordecai flee after the appearance of “the man in blue” at their house?

4.  From Mouse Island to Circe’s cove, Mercy and Mordecai discover many stories and encounter many people while on their voyage. Which part of their journey was your favorite? Why?

5. The Rathbones has many similarities to Homer’s The Odyssey. In what ways do characters in The Rathbones compare to characters in The Odyssey? How are some of the journeys taken similar?

6. Discuss the treatment of women in the novel. For example, how did the experience of the Rathbone wives (Chapter Five, The Worn Wives, 1778) compare and contrast with the marriages of the Stark women (Chapter Ten, The Golden Wives, 1801)? What was expected of them? What authority did they have over their own lives?

7. Alternatively, discuss the treatment of boys in the novel. How did Mordecai’s life compare to those of his male Rathbone ancestors?

8. The novel is primarily told from the perspective of fifteen-year-old Mercy. How did her age and gender inform the telling of the Rathbone history?

9. What is the significance of the crows that follow Mercy? In what ways do they guide and help her?

10. Discuss the mother-daughter relationship between Verity and Mercy. What do you think motivates Verity’s treatment of her daughter? How does Mercy view her own mother?

11. How does the discovery of Verity’s journals change Mercy and Mordecai’s relationship? Did the knowledge that they are half-siblings, and not cousins, change your perspective on their odyssey together?

12. If you could meet one character from the book, which character would it be, and why?

13. If you had to choose one word to describe the overriding theme of The Rathbones, what would it be?

Suggested Reading

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern; Swamplandia! by Karen Russell; Moby Dick by Herman Melville; The Odyssey by Homer; The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield; The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry; Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund; One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
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