Sea Stories | The Reader's Shelf

The sea has fascinated authors throughout time. Popular fiction genres from domestic fiction to wartime novels involve a profusion of pelagic topics and themes.

The sea has fascinated authors throughout time. Popular fiction genres from domestic fiction to wartime novels involve a profusion of pelagic topics and themes.

Vanessa Veselka’s character-driven novel The Great Offshore Grounds (Knopf. 2020. ISBN 9780525658078), which introduces a trio of estranged siblings, was longlisted for the National Book Award and won the Ken Kesey Award. Two adult half-sisters, accompanied by their adopted brother, set out on a road trip full of misadventures across the United States, intent on claiming an unusual inheritance: They are seeking a family secret rather than cash, but instead are forced into confronting reality. As they encounter coastal communities, from the docks of Seattle to southeastern swamplands, these three often-surprised adventurers become increasingly immersed in their chaotic search. Ultimately, however, their American dream is fulfilled by fishing off Alaska’s coast, in this sprawling saga of wildly dysfunctional family dynamics. READ NEXT: He Started It, by Samantha Downing, depicts another dysfunctional road trip.

The focus of Devin Murphy’s debut novel, The Boat Runner (Harper Perennial. 2017. ISBN 9780062658012), is a prosperous family thriving during the 1930s in a northeastern Netherlands fishing village. The Dutch owner of a profitable light bulb factory anticipates a partnership with the German Volkswagen factory. He sends his two sons, Jacob and Edwin, to a Hitler Youth camp to seal the deal. The idyllic, serene life that these boys have experienced comes to a halt following this juncture, and a catastrophe effects the entire family and the community. A beloved fisherman uncle, who ferries supplies for German troops, plays a major role in the subsequent developments, but it is soon apparent that this fellow is sabotaging the Germans. Jacob, confused by his considerable losses, initially joins the German military, but eventually—disheartened, depressed, confronted by moral dilemmas, narrowly escaping death—he flees his post. The timely arrival of his loving uncle allows Jacob to make amends as he helps save the persecuted. This nautical coming-of-age narrative offers a relatively unexplored view of the Dutch wartime experience. READ NEXT: Georgia Hunter’s We Were the Lucky Ones is a portrait of a fractured family during the Second World War.

Magical realism combines ancient myths and family life in Sharks in the Time of Saviors (Picador. 2021. ISBN 9781250787316), the debut novel by PEN/Hemingway Award winner Kawai Strong Washburn. While enjoying a rare trip on a cruise ship with his family, seven-year-old Nainoa falls overboard. This horror is matched by an amazing rescue, as the boy is safely delivered back to his family in the jaws of a shark. Observers view this as a miracle, a sign from the gods, especially as Nainoa soon exhibits baffling gifts of prophesy. As time passes, Nainoa’s family increasingly leans on his predictions, which help them financially. As the story unfolds, family members’ reactions—stress, admiration, wonderment—become its focus, as each realizes that they are in Nainoa’s shadow. This is a compelling tale, a fountain of family dreams. READ NEXT: Kristiana Kahakauwila’s This Is Paradise: Stories offers another view of Hawai‘i.

Award-winning poet and novelist Michael Crummey’s Galore (Other Pr. 2011. ISBN 9781590514344) is a close-up look at the bleak Newfoundland coast during a particularly desolate spring. A group of villagers come upon a beached whale that is close to death. Following the whale’s demise, the villagers decide to use it for much-needed oil and food. They are soon amazed and shocked at their unimaginable discovery that the whale’s belly contains a human, who’s very much alive. It’s decided that he will be named Judah, as the citizens cannot recall if it was Jonah or Judas who was swallowed by a biblical whale. Supernatural, mythical features play a major role in this near–fairy tale, partly based on Newfoundland folklore. Crummey presents a crew of captivating characters scrambling to understand and appreciate their unusual gift from the sea. READ NEXT: In Sweetland, Crummey again visits mortality in Newfoundland.

A treasure chest full of topics is revealed in Manhattan Beach (Scribner. 2018. ISBN 9781476716749), by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jennifer Egan. This log of the Depression and the early years of the Second World War involves 11-year-old Anna Kerrigan, the apple of her father’s eye. Frequently accompanying him on his money collecting rounds for the Irish mob, Anna encounters a variety of individuals. When her beloved father vanishes a few years later, Anna is left to provide for her mother and disabled sister. Displaying a gift for manual dexterity, she finds employment at the nearby Brooklyn Navy Yard as an inspector, examining battleship parts. Her dream, though, is to become a diver who repairs underwater warships, a job considered too strenuous for women. However, fearless, determined Anna wins out, becoming the first female diver and bringing forth a seachange in her life. Women’s empowerment, father-daughter relationships, and mob ties are only a few themes interwoven in Egan’s exquisite near-noir view of American society and the war effort. READ NEXT: Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles, sheds light on other chance encounters in 1938 New York.

This column was contributed by librarian and freelance writer Andrea Tarr, Alta Loma, CA.

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