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JOAN SULLIVAN: Kevin Major targets sinking of the S.S. Caribou in latest novel

“Land Beyond the Sea,” by Kevin Major; Breakwater Books; $19.95; 248 pages.
“Land Beyond the Sea,” by Kevin Major; Breakwater Books; $19.95; 248 pages. - Contributed

Oct. 14, 1942, and S.S. Caribou is readying for its Sydney, N.S. – Port aux Basques crossing.

One woman most capably aboard is Bride. “She has never been one, and now at sixty-one, it is not likely she ever will.”

After years working at the Waldorf in New York, she’s taken a post on the ferry. Astute, alert, she’s still not beyond a little flirtation.

John Gilbert, whom Bride met as he travelled from St. Anthony to New York’s high steel, is now working under her. He’s “his own man … restless” but Bride thinks he might make chief steward one day.

At the helm is Capt. Ben Taverner. His Trinity family is rich with seafaring, and he himself has served on many in Newfoundland’s coastal fleet. But the ferry is different.

“The S.S. Caribou is a civilian vessel. But more than half of Taverner’s 191 passengers are military, on their way back to their bases in Newfoundland. And not for one second does Taverner believe German intelligence isn’t aware of that.”

Among those are a couple of American GIs, Buzz and Hank (“White teeth, chewing gum, Vitalis.”), and two Nursing Sisters, returning from home visits to Manitoba and Saskatchewan (one “rather too severe” but the other “a sweet good-looker, the catch of the trip.”)

And there are regular passengers, like William Lundrigan, “a building contractor and one of the island’s leading businessmen. He’s done very well by the arrival of the American military in Newfoundland.” He’s also a considerate man, giving his cabin to a mother and a crying baby, though he himself looks unwell. (“Hernia, Bride thinks now.”)

Central to the narrative is a German submariner, Gräf. His background is meticulously explored, as well as his pivotal role on that night and in that war.

Gräf was no ardent Nazi. “I was torpedo officer at the training school in Flensburg-Mürwik in November of 1938. We knew nothing of die Kristallnacht. I had boyhood friends who were Jews. I went home on leave and saw their synagogue had been burned and the ruins carted off, that edifice built by Semper, the same man who built our Opera House.”

His own mother is sympathetic to the Jews, though his father insists they’ve brought their troubles on themselves. Gräf, a rather artsy young man who draws in his quiet time, has no interest in politics.

As a piece of historical fiction, “Land Beyond the Sea” is deftly researched. As author Kevin Major notes, there are extensive first-person accounts (and within the text Gräf keeps “a private journal of the men (in his submarine crew), each name heading a separate page. On occasion I add a simple pencil sketch, if the man’s face prompts it.”), as well U-Boat logs and a wealth of meticulous research and study.

Major applies this to recreate one sailing of one vessel set against the backdrop of the massive, treacherous, mortal Battle of the Atlantic, which, at extortionate human cost, slowly turned the axle of war against the Germans. Caribou being part of that toll: “A savage thrust, one boat to another.” Then all was panic, terror, and loss. “There’s no accounting for who made it and who didn’t.”

At the opening of the war, the U-Boats gave sailors opportunity to save themselves, letting them access lifeboats before sending their ship to the bottom. “Our enemy is the ship, not her men,” Gräf states. But now German Admiral Dönitz has given new orders. After U-156 sank the British troopship Laconia, and they “raised a Red Cross flag and set about to rescue some of the survivors, an American bomber attacked it, even though it had been informed of its mission.” So now Dönitz decrees no U-Boat will help any “members of ships sunk, and this includes picking up persons in the water and putting them in lifeboats, righting capsized lifeboats, and handing over food and water.”

The story continues on from the doomed of that awful night, following those who lived through to another awful night, the February 1945 bombing of Dresden.

There’s a lot of action, but, unfortunately (I’m a fan of Major’s and really enjoyed his last novel, “One For the Rock”) it’s all a bit … cardboard. Perhaps it’s the too-regular shifts between German and Allied points-of-view, manipulating our reader sympathies back-and-forth. I also found myself re-reading some odd sentences, like “The Caribou is no more than an unrepentant thief in the night.” (It’s stealthy?)

Major has proved himself a dab hand in this genre (“No Man’s Land,” anyone?) but here’s a personal request for another contemporary mystery next — now that was fun.

Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.

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