Of men and ships (The Way of a Ship by Derek Lundy)

For writers, Derek Lundy’s The Way of a Ship offers insight into developing 3 skills: how to develop character, how to write an active narrator in your stories, and how to weave research into your narrative.

Toward the end of the 19th century, Benjamin Lundy, a young adventurer, signed aboard the four-mast merchant ship Beara Head. It is his first crossing of the Atlantic, of rounding South America’s Cape Horn, and of treacherous ventures into the Southern Ocean. Derek Lundy transports us into a world of men, of wind and storms, of waves and ice, of the workings of a square-rigger ship, and more.

Of the men, Lundy says that Benjamin “never admired anyone more than these ragged, tattooed, wild-looking men; he hungered to be like them, and to be accepted by them.” Of wind Lundy writes that in the Southern Ocean there are storms like no other: “Getting a ship round Cape Horn could be the most difficult job a captain would ever do at sea.” For Benjamin,

“He had never seen a seascape like it and could not have imagined it. Benjamin wedged himself into the railings of the windward poop steps and looked out over a sea that writhed and heaved with such monstrous, uncontrollable energy that he was amazed that the barque continued to lie within it. He looked up at wave crests like waterfalls toppling down eighty-foot-high hills, then down into troughs that seemed bottomless, the sea there merely a darker part of the deep hole he teetered above.”

This book could only have been written by a sailor who loves ships and the sea. Derek Lundy’s passion comes through the weaving of words by Melville and Conrad, their insight (and his own) into the meaning the sea holds for us all. His research doesn’t end with reading other authors, or ships’ logs and old accounts of voyages by captains and mates. During its writing, Derek Lundy signed onto a sailing ship and rounded the Horn to gain first-hand experience (although he admits that with today’s technology, his voyage is never ever close to as dangerous as that of his great-great uncle.)

The third narrative woven tightly into The Way of a Ship is the story of ships and shipping during the 18th and 19th centuries. We learn the cargo and parts of merchant sailing ships, the rough men who loaded and redistributed cargo (in this case hot coal) and raised and lowered sails, who cared for every bit of rigging and for the ship itself. We learn about the officer class who commanded (often cruelly) the men, and on this ship, the “hen,” the captain’s wife who sailed with them. We glimpse the era’s industrial, political, and social history, and of barques themselves. We experience love and terror of the sea, and we gain respect for the men who rode upon it during the age of four-mast-barques.

For the writers among us, Lundy provides lessons:

  1. First, we can learn a lot by reading closely to see how he builds characters, Benjamin’s first among them. He is not a two dimensional photograph in a family album; he is a vital youth who becomes a man who knows himself. As you read, think about the development of others (the shanty singer, the mates, the fearsome and the friends, and don’t forget the captain’s wife).
  2. Like The Cave by José Saramago (book review of The Cave), Lundy gives us a narrator who claims a voice in the story (in Lundy’s case, himself). If you’ve tried this, you know how tricky the balancing act can be. Writers who read conscientiously will see how Lundy balances the voice of his great-great-uncle Benjamin with his own contemporary insights and knowledge. And you’ll see how he builds a context of sharing a love for sailing and the sea.
  3. Finally, I’ve never read a better example of an author weaving research—both secondary and primary—into his story. He has made me want to reread Melville and Conrad as well as creating in me respect for other like Captains Cook and Vancouver whose logs he references.

The Way of the Sea: a square-rigger voyage in the last days of sail by Derek Lundy reflects on an era that has passed, but the romance of the sea is alive and well (witness the number of sail-and/or-work-aboard opportunities that exist today on “tall” and other “model” ships). Perhaps because I sailed the Caribbean Sea over four seasons (some foolishly during hurricane months) I fell right into Lundy’s story and experienced the frightening and frustrating doldrums along with squalls far beyond those that riled the water around my sailing sloop and tore its squawking sails. But even if you’re not a sailor, you’ll be drawn into this adventure.

Whether you’re a writer, an armchair reader or an adventure traveller, I’d love to hear what you think of Derek Lundy’s The Way of a Ship.

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Cover image: Alfred A. Knopf 2002 edition

Available through your local bookstore or online: The Way of a Ship

Reading as a Writer: 6 Tips for reading The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam

“Are you still oblivious to everything that happens around you, just like in the old days?”

 

We first meet Percival as a boy called Chen Pie Sou in Shantou, China. He’s a flawed—and interesting—character who never seems to quite know himself. “Are you still oblivious to everything that happens around you, just like in the old days?” asks Mrs. Ling. Oblivious he might be, but in his own way, he tries to do the right thing. Percival’s good intentions and obsessions lead to intrigue and drama, as well as becoming integral to the tapestry of love Vincent Lam weaves.

Writers of fictional memoir might want to read this book with an eye as to how Vincent Lam weaves facts, second-hand memory, and fiction together. He acknowledges,

“My parents helped me with generous recollections of their childhoods in Vietnam. The specific details and anecdotes that they shared with me were invaluable in my understanding of life’s rhythms in that era. My late grandfather, William Lin, inspired the fictional protagonist of this novel.”

Reading as a writer, is one of the best ways to develop your skills. As you read “The Headmaster’s Wager ask yourself how he:

  1. Accomplishes the hook;
  2. Maintains interest;
  3. Threads a story through inter-connected problems and their solutions;
  4. Brings scenes, situations, and place alive;
  5. Develops character (not only that of the protagonist, but also others); and
  6. After the twists and turns, rewards with a satisfying conclusion (whether it’s a happy one or not).

Lam provides us with a story that not simply allows us into the world of the expat Chinese community in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, but he creates a fictional memoir that reads with a truth that is often absent from more factual or completely fictional works.

I remember Vietnam War journalism as it splashed across the pages of newspapers, as well as sit-ins and other anti-war protests of the era. Vincent Lam’s The Headmaster’s Wager takes us through a doorway into the lives of people living through the pain, upheaval and turmoil in the county. Enjoy this complex book that stirs emotions of longing, joy, and unmeasurable sadness.

 

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Available through your local bookstore or online: The Headmaster’s Wager

Old Havana’s (Flawed) Maestro (A Simple Habana Melody by Oscar Hijuelos)

“I’m feeling inspired—quick, I need a drink.”

“In the spring of 1947, when Israel Levis, composer of that most famous of rumbas ‘Rosas Puras,’ returned to Habana, Cuba, from Europe… his old friends…were startled by his appearance.” So, Oscar Hijuelos’ novel A Simple Habana Melody begins: a time, a maestro-protagonist, a place, and a change.

We learn that Levis, a child protégé, grew up in a doting family with one living brother (three other childhood deaths, which explains the “doting” mother). Doña Concepción, urges her son to “pray and pray to God that He protect him. She rewards his obedience with a great abundance of food. From a chubby child, Israel grows into a big man with big appetites. Virile, Levis frequently visits Habana’s prostitutes (and later those of Paris); still, he’s attracted to “handsome young men”. He’s a man in love with Rita Valadares, but unable to declare his love for her (although he writes the famous “Rosas Puras” for the sensuous singer).

Hijuelos also describes how “The early 1930s were an especially brutal time for the arts in Cuba….” This is the time after the island gained independence from Spain, and the former general, now dictator, Machado was running Cuba, a time when Levis’ friends “vanished without a trace or had been sent to prison.” Yet Levis “lived with the illusion that the ever-growing list of crimes committed by the dictator and the intensifying oppression and mockery of the arts would pass, in time.” Somehow, Levis sees himself apart from the politics of the era, assured that God would protect him. But raids by the secret police, “porra,” intensify.

On an April evening, 1932, Levis and his friend and collaborator, Manny Cortez meet at the Campana Bar.

“Later, Levis slept restlessly, and had a disquieting dream about a raven crouching on a skull, its flapping wings and cries of caw, caw so loud and mocking that he abruptly awoke at three in the morning….”

Manny had been killed, “Traces of the lyricist’s bloodstains were to be found on the paving for weeks.” Frightened, Levis leaves Cuba to go on tour. We jump ahead to Paris. A love story is dropped into the novel and, because of his Jewish-sounding name—although a devout Roman Catholic—Levis is detained and sent to Buchenwald. ”For the next 14 months, the maestro did not believe the things he saw, nor the sounds he heard.” Levis avoids the fate of others by playing his music for German brass, but we glimpse little of that experience or his reaction, except afterward, back on the streets of Habana,  he was pained whenever he heard his music.

The trajectory of Levis’ life is fraught with his blindness, which I accepted until he reaches Paris and then Buchenwald during WWII. The Paris relationship felt out of character and the Buchenwald experience shallow. Hijuelos, author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (a Pulitzer Prize winner) fails in A Simple Habana Melody to fully engage and sustain belief to the end. If  Hijuelos intended a somewhat degenerate maestro and his fall as metaphor for Cuba, he fails.

What drew me to A Simple Habana Melody—and what kept me reading—were Hijuelos’ descriptions of Habana before the malecón had been built, a time when “the sea crashed freely against the rocky shore.” He writes of the city’s history, how Habana derives its name from “an Indian chieftain, Habaquanex,” and of how the city of old “bustled with the energy of an old European capital.” In a later period, with Levis, we wander the streets of the city and we see the majestic buildings that graced the neighbourhoods and glimpse the very different life of Habana after independence from Spain and dictatorship of Machado.

Oscar Hijuelos gives readers a complex, conflicted and flawed character during a political era and context that should make for page-turning-late-into-the-night reading. But the story often falls flat. Nevertheless, if you are curious about Cuba’s marred history and want to glimpse Habana during an exciting artistic period, A Simple Habana Melody provides a portal into those times and place.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: A Simple Habana Melody