“Page-turner” may be a cliché, but this memoir-cum-mystery with a clever premise is a strong contender for the honor.
In July 2006, neophyte writer Spaulding bought a watercolor painting titled The Pilot House, as in the pilothouse of a commercial fishing boat. When told that the boat was the Ellen Marie and might still be afloat, Spaulding had an epiphany: She was going to track down the Ellen Marie. It was built in the early 1960s at the Harvey Gamage Shipyard in Bristol, Maine. How many owners in half a century? Spaulding dug into the archives and maritime records in New Bedford, the renowned Massachusetts fishing port. She trekked up to Maine, talking to whomever she could find who worked for Harvey Gamage at the time. Never without cellphone and laptop, Spaulding made all sorts of contacts, serendipity playing a large part: A waitress, a gas pump jockey and a grocery bagger turned out to be a cousin of so-and-so who crewed for so-and-so. Commercial fishing, as readers learn, is a very hard, very dangerous way to make a buck, and there aren’t even serious bucks to be made anymore. Boats sink. Her sources have lost fathers, sons, brothers. A mate was careless around a winch and was decapitated. Winter squalls can sheath a boat in ice. Woodie Bowers, captain of the Ellen Marie in her heyday, takes Spaulding and readers on an imagined typical run out to Georges Bank, with plenty of arcane terminology and lore. One chilling item: Changing the name of a boat, which is exactly what a later owner did (Ellen Marie became Three Vs), is sure to bring bad luck. After a few chapters to settle down her style, Spaulding proves to be an engaging writer. The chapters are short, underscoring the drama of the chase, and black-and-white period photographs help fill out the picture.
Did Spaulding find the Ellen Marie? Yes and no. And only reading this enjoyable book will clear up the ambiguity.