A debut historical novel captures life on the ocean waves in the late 19th century.
For the uninitiated, a downeaster is a fast, medium-size clipper ship, designed to carry cargo. The year is 1872, and the downeaster featured here is The Providence, anchored in Bath, Maine. The captain of the ship is Isaac Griffin, one of the tale’s three central characters. Griffin, a man down on his luck, faces a choice: bankruptcy or the financially beneficial yet desperately perilous journey around Cape Horn. To complicate matters, a fire severely burned his hand during a previous voyage (“pain shrieked from the damaged tendons and injured nerve endings”). The opening of the story points to a classic “Horn run” adventure with storms, curses, and sea shanties aplenty. On this front, the storyline does not disappoint, yet it is further bolstered by the author’s fastidious charting of his characters’ psychological development. With regard to Nicholas Priest in particular, the novel develops into a well-wrought bildungsroman. A victim of a brutal hazing at his boarding school, where he was tied to a tree in the freezing cold, the young Nicholas is first seen at the elbow of his father, weak and with breathing difficulties. His father’s kill-or-cure solution for him turns out to be a sea voyage. Nicholas’ personal journey into manhood, punctuated by courageousness and healing, becomes one of the most vivid strands in an elaborately woven narrative. The third, yet by no means least important, of the three central characters is the green-eyed nurse Kayleigh MacKenna. MacKenna’s story, a refreshing addition, allows the author to explore 19th-century women’s rights and attempts to perceive the era from a female aesthetic. How each of these distinct narrative threads becomes interwoven is part of the joy of reading this witty, vigorous book. In terms of style, each sentence, elegantly composed, embodies sufficient ruggedness to capture the fervor of a life spent at sea: “The wind had been steady and brisk from southwest and south. Large waves crested with white foam rolled atop sides carved rough with gouges. These made Providence behave like a young stallion racing, absorbed and satisfied by the joy of its own physicality.” Inspired by the close scrutiny of ships’ logs of the age, this historically accurate, engrossing account will likely appeal to seasoned seadogs and landlubbers alike.
A clever, riveting, and multifaceted tale about sailing, so vivid that readers should taste the salt spray.