As the book opens, Nix Song is standing in a Calcutta market in 1774, haggling for a caladrius (a bird thought to heal illnesses) in preparation for their next voyage. They will weigh anchor for New York in 2016, where Captain Slate, Nix’s father, will purchase THE map – one that will take him to his “final” destination. For, quite apart from his opium addiction, Slate is not an ordinary captain. He and his tall ship, the Temptation, are time-travelers, and he is obsessed with one specific time and place: Hawaii in 1868, where his beloved wife died giving birth - to Nix. If this voyage is successful, will Nix still exist? It’s doubtful. Does her father care? That’s doubtful, too. At the moment, however, he needs Nix; she is the person who follows the maps and charts their voyages across space and time. The survival of the crew (Bee the boatswain, Rotgut the cook, and especially Kashmir, the handsome, daring “Arabian” whose light fingers supply their voyages) depend on Nix’s skills as well as Slate’s.
When the Temptation reaches Hawaii with the help of a map whose purchase in 21st-century New York City is financed by Kashmir’s theft of a pocket watch in 18th-century Calcutta, Captain Slate is shattered to discover that the map was back-dated, and that the year is 1884. Was the map misdated on purpose, to lure Slate to Honolulu at the wrong time? It looks increasingly suspicious. Gradually, Nix finds that a secret society of powerful non-native Hawaiian residents, knowing the captain’s craving for THE map will lead him to do anything, have planned to involve him in a theft of the royal treasury. Nix the time traveler knows the theft will prove the Hawaiian king’s inability to protect his subjects and eventually lead to Hawaii’s annexation by the United States. Even Slate knows the men who are buying his cooperation are traitors. But knowing that travelers to the past can’t change the course of “real” history, Slate says he will stage the theft (in return for the real map) as soon as he gets access to another map which will obtain him the help of long-dead Chinese soldiers and another map that will bring the Temptation back to 1884.
Nix narrates a complicated plot filled with literary, historical, and mythical references, a love story with two possible Romeos, and wonderful portraits of 19th century Hawaii’s ecological paradise. There is a great deal going on in this book, much of it sophisticated, but the plot sails along so energetically and skillfully that a reader takes in all the book’s richness only upon reflection after finishing it. It’s an adventure tale, a love story, a history of a paradise lost – and a coming-of-age story of a delightful heroine who has to navigate not only the seas of the past, but a difficult relationship with her father’s 16 years of obsession with his love for her mother. The story is compelling, and Heilig’s control of the voyage is altogether admirable.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.