In his fiction debut, Máté (The Hills of Tuscany, 1998, etc.) writes about two consuming interests: sailing, and Canada’s Kwakiutl Indians. There’s also a pasted-on plot involving a rescue mission.
Dugger, the protagonist, is salvaging logs off a wretched coastal town in British Columbia when he rescues an unmanned ketch and becomes its new owner. The ketch is his pride and joy, but Dugger has another love interest, the married Katherine Hay, whom he once taught to sail. She’s little more than a generic tease, a siren, but she’s Dugger’s obsession, and when he’s offered good money to rescue her from two escaped Kwakiutl convicts, he jumps at the chance. He will head north to uncharted islands, searching for their canoe. His crew consists of his old friend Nello (Italian father, Kwakiutl mother) and a teenaged Chinese cook; the one passenger is Katherine’s husband. Apparently, all this takes place after World War I. Máté is as vague about dates as he is about Dugger’s checkered past; characterization takes a back seat to the challenge of the sea. Here, Máté does a good job, tracking the ketch through perilous storms and fogs; there’s an extraordinary description of Dugger rescuing dying Chinese from a stricken tramp steamer. That, however, is a flashback. The mission, slow to start, lacks a clean narrative line, bogging down in complications. Their passenger proves to be an imposter, who may be in cahoots with a Japanese sharpshooter bearing down on them in a tug. The author works in his knowledge of the Kwakiutl once the ketch reaches Nello’s old village in time for the potlatch, an ancient gift-giving ceremony that degenerates into cannibalism before armed white men show up. By the end, there have been so many deaths and resurrections that the tale has lost all credibility.
There are just enough flashes of suspense to hold out promise for the next in the projected series.