Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Books for Adults - Nonfiction
Shipwrecks fascinate us. They stir our curiosity, raising questions, some of which can never be answered. The first is unknown, although the oldest one found dates to 400 BC. They are evidence that no matter how hard we try to tame the ocean, powerful forces disabuse us of this. We still continue to try.
Shipbuilding, trade, and travel have long been tied to Maine’s history, yet the state’s coastal waters are also the final resting place for many vessels. One thousand six hundred are documented, but we may never know the full count because prior to 1874, it wasn’t necessary to report such sea disasters and witness accounts didn’t always agree. The 3,500 miles of shoreline is treacherous, with many hidden dangers, and the names of offshore islands – Deadman Ledge, Devil’s Island, Hell Gate, Burial Island – portend this peril. Then there are the structural failures, human error, manmade dangers, and the whims of Mother Nature that are also responsible for endangering lives and ships that venture near these shores.
An integral part of the history of shipwrecks is man’s attempts to prevent them. The first lighthouse in Maine began operating in 1791. The US Life-Saving Service, a forerunner of the US Coast Guard, helped rescue crew, passengers, and property beginning in 1848. The seventeen chapters of this book recount “stories of tragedy and triumph, loss and salvation, [and] can serve as cautionary tales and reminders of the sea’s mighty dominance and will.” (xv)
Following her introduction, Plumb shares the earliest account of a Maine shipwreck, which Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony recorded in 1624. She also chronicles losses during the Great Colonial Hurricane in 1635 and the story of the James, which found herself in the midst of a hurricane. Among her passengers was the Reverend Richard Mather, whose offspring would become famous Boston theologians.
Plumb writes a history of shipwrecks and other maritime disasters that is at times gripping, at times hopeful, and often poignant. Those familiar with Maine’s history may be familiar with many of these tales, such as that of Katherine Bright who kept the light on Boon Island burning for five days after a storm killed her husband, or the Penobscot Expedition during the Revolutionary War, which ranked as the US Navy’s worst defeat until Pearl Harbor, or the 1813 battle between HMS Boxer and the USS Enterprise, in which both captains died. Many readers, however, are introduced to new accounts of cannibalism, heroism, deplorable exploitation, puzzling disappearances, ghosts, nightmares foretelling doom, frozen lovers, a concrete ship, and a German U-boat on the hunt. There’s even the story of the Royal Tar, an early steamship that caught fire while transporting a circus.
This is a worthy addition to any maritime collection. A list of sources is provided and, although there is no index, the recounting of shipwrecks and disasters unfold mostly in chronological order. A great, yet haunting, read on a dark and stormy night.
Review Copyrighted ©2021 Cindy Vallar
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