From The Wall Street Journal:
On Feb. 17, 1952, two men set off from Maine’s Monhegan Island in a 30-foot vessel loaded down with 5,000 pounds of crated lobsters. The old salts on the island had tried to dissuade Harland Davis and James Haigh from making the trip; the weather was iffy and a storm seemed likely. But the two men were eager to get the live lobsters to market and get themselves back to their wives and daughters on the mainland, and anyway the Sea Breeze had made the 11-mile crossing many times before without incident. This time, however, not halfway to its destination of Port Clyde, the vessel was engulfed by blinding snow and heaving seas and bludgeoned to the bottom.
Davis and Haigh thus became the first victims in Maine of the two-day tempest that Cathie Pelletier anatomizes in “Northeaster,” a historical re-creation of personal experiences so dramatic that they have lingered for decades in local and family lore. The 1952 storm wreaked havoc in New England, destroying wharfs, smashing boats, trapping tens of thousands of travelers and producing seas off Cape Cod so massive that two gargantuan tankers split in half. The daring Coast Guard rescue of the survivors aboard those sundered vessels, and the famous heroism of coxswain Bernard Webber, are detailed in “The Finest Hours,” a 2009 bestseller that was made into a movie of the same name a few years later.
Ms. Pelletier doesn’t depict scenes of exceptional valor; nor does she write of people who became household names. Her characters are ordinary people. Explaining her narrative choices, she twice evokes Will Durant’s description of civilization as a stream with banks: “The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians usually record,” while on the banks, unheralded, “people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry.” There’s no lovemaking in “Northeaster,” but there is a smattering of poetry, along with descriptions of homes and children and men and women whose lives were altered—and in some cases ended—when the storm picked up power off North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
Ms. Pelletier, a novelist and nonfiction writer from northern Maine, has drawn on contemporaneous testimonies and the remembrances of adult children, friends and relatives to draw detailed portraits of 10 people who were caught in the storm. To add texture and drama to these stories, she puts what must surely be speculative words (and foods) into the mouths of her subjects—to which we might say, well, fair enough, since “Northeaster” is not a work of academic exactitude but a kind of oral history.
. . . .
We meet Hazel Tardiff, a heavily pregnant housewife in the coastal shipbuilding town of Bath, who, as the weather shifts, places a dish of homemade pickle relish on the table and tells her daughter to call her husband and son to supper. We’re introduced to Sonny Pomelow, a 15-year-old Boy Scout from a hardscrabble family in the inland town of Brownville, who catches a ride with an ill-fated vehicle. We follow Paul Delaney, a 19-year-old Navy radio operator who borrows a car to take a girl to the movies in Bar Harbor and winds up marooned for three days under almost 12 feet of snow. We also get to know the doomed men on the Sea Breeze and see the anguish of their families and friends after the Coast Guard hauls their corpses from the frigid waters of Muscongus Bay.
Ms. Pelletier interleaves short chapters about her principal characters with dashes of historical bricolage and running accounts of what was unfolding elsewhere in Maine during the storm. In towns “famous for grievances,” residents had complaints: “Why wasn’t the daily newspaper on the front steps? Why weren’t the streets cleared? One man, in the first evening of the storm, called his town office to complain that he was not just starving, he was also out of cigarettes.” Eventually the snowfall was so intense that plows broke down and the highways had to be closed, sealing the Pine Tree State off from the rest of the country and stranding thousands of people at the Howard Johnson’s in Kennebunk, the only eatery on the Maine Turnpike.
There’s a problem, though, with the Durantist “river bank” approach to a disaster story like the one that is presented in “Northeaster.” It produces a mismatch for the reader. In life, each of us has an interior life that’s informed by our tastes and experiences; each of us has peculiar attributes that make us dear to the people who love us. But if we perish in a calamity, what’s interesting to strangers is the manner of our deaths.
So while Ms. Pelletier has taken great trouble to bring vibrancy to her subjects, her efforts do not always pay off. For instance, she tells how Sonny Pomelow liked to hang out with his friends in the red Naugahyde booths at the local Rexall drugstore, poring over hot-rod magazines and fantasizing about driving to California. Unfortunately, this kind of granular information can feel extraneous to the callous, thrill-seeking reader, for whom the teenager matters primarily because in the maelstrom of snow a plow train hit the car he was riding in and killed him.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal