Monday, December 10, 2007

The reader's life has pleasures that bookless folk never know

To para-phrase the Australian poet, Banjo Patterson in Clancy of the Overflow, - For the reader's life has pleasures that bookless folk never know.

Used book stores are wonderful places of discovery. With the decimation of the independent bookstore in communities across the country, used book stores (along with libraries) become increasingly important for the sustenance of our cultural heritage, but with a twist.

You can't necessarily go into one knowing that you will find what you seek but sometimes you find that which you did not know you were looking for. I love spending time in used book stores for this very reason: the chance for the unexpected and often improbable discovery.

This past week I was in one my favorite used book stores in Atlanta, The Book Nook, and came across a sea story of which I had never heard, Blackwater A True Epic of the Sea. No, not that Blackwater that's been in the news. Blackwater as in blackwater fever.

The book was written by H.L. Tredree and published in Britain in 1958 and recounts his early maritime career in a tramp steamer at the end of World War I. How this book came to be in the Book Nook in Atlanta, Georgia in 2007 would be a story in itself but that is a different tale.

The fact that it takes place in 1918 is pretty incidental. The upshot though, is that after loading and unloading cargo in the West Africa port of Dakaar, their ship, the S.S. Normandier set sail with a handful of the 49 person crew already coming down with the symptoms of blackwater fever.

In short order the entire crew has succumbed to the fever, all debilitated and many dying each day. With no one fit to stand shift or tend the engines, their engines die as well and they are left drifting and without power or heat in the North Atlantic. Without power, they are unable to end a wireless signal of distress.

With the first few deaths, they have proper burials at sea. As the fever takes its toll though, they end up barely being able to dispose of the bodies overboard and in a handful of instances have to leave the person where they expired, no one having the strength to move them.

The author, an eighteen year old wireless operator is among those stricken. The symptoms are prolonged bouts of fever, pustules, delirium, hallucinations, with some members of the crew appearing to recover into lucidity and then quickly relapsing and dying.

In some ways, this account could be criticized for how it is structured, the drifting in between third person and first person narrative and other minor infelicities. These deviations from artful telling in fact build the verisimilitude of the story.

In the end some eighteen members of the forty-nine member crew survived. At the time of their rescue, only two members, Tredree and the First Mate, were able to move in even the most limited fashion. Among the eighteen rescued were four who were thought to have already died but who in actual fact were in a deep coma from which they were revived. One is left, in a Poe-ish twist, to wonder about the actual status of the thirty-one who had already been committed to the deep.

If you enjoy maritime sea stories at all, add this one to your list to look for. I am delighted to have discovered it.

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