True survivor horror stories torment the imagination and fill library shelves. Those that include that most morally repugnant taboo, cannibalism, are in a league of their own.
There’s the tale of the Donner party, crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains, getting caught in early winter snows and resorting to eating their dead. The true story that inspired Moby-Dick—the whale ship Essex, rammed by a whale and sunk—saw the crew drawing lots to decide who would be sacrificed for food. A more recent case was the 1972 plane crash in the Andes, in which survivors also succumbed to the need for food—the human kind.
Boon Island is a lesser-known instance of the struggle against starvation and weather that also led to that ultimate dilemma, whether to “have a friend for dinner,” as the film character Hannibal Lechter put it, or die of starvation. And it happened right off our shores.
But the Boon Island shipwreck story, carefully researched and engagingly told by Andrew Vietze and Stephen Erickson, is only the door through which the reader passes into a deeper story, one that illuminates 18th century maritime, political and social history.
The book opens with a corpse washing ashore on Wells Beach on New Year’s Day, 1711. It was a very different Maine then—relations with the natives were not good, the English and French were firing cannons at each other’s ships, and Atlantic crossings in winter were not common.
Boon—more a rocky shoal than an island—lay just six miles offshore. Too far to signal to the mainland for help or to travel across the water in a make-shift craft. The latter was proven by the corpse on the beach.
The book tells the two very different accounts of what happened on the island, beginning on the night of Dec. 11, 1710 when the Nottingham Galley crashed into the rocks. And it peels back another layer, setting side-by-side the divergent accounts about the voyage from England, to Ireland, Newfoundland and finally New England.
Capt. John Deane would have his say, in court and in print (at least three times, as it turned out). But three crew members also would be heard, boldly disputing the captain’s version. With a journalist’s restraint, the writers note who said and wrote what, and when, about the odd journey that ended so dramatically.
In fact, the life-and-death struggles on a rock in the Gulf of Maine in December are less interesting than the games that were apparently being played by the captain and his brother, an investor in the ship, during their lazy passage from England.
If there is a criticism to be made of the telling of the tale, it is that there is too much restraint. Signaling to the reader earlier on that all was not as it appeared might have lent more urgency, more intrigue.
Yet at the same time, the strength of the book is that it refrains from conjecture and from choosing heroes and villains. (Famed Maine historical novel writer Kenneth Roberts, Vietze and Erickson note, published a barely fictionalized version of the Boon Island story in which Capt. Deane is cast as the unequivocal hero.)
The pertinent facts are set in context here. And there is much in the public record from which to draw, so the reader can use the captain’s own words to judge or forgive him.
Especially interesting, in this era of social media, is how the captain and his partners and the three crew men promoted their competing versions through pamphlets circulated at coffee bars and pubs in London.
Vietze, a former editor at Down East magazine, is an especially engaging writer; his “Becoming Teddy Roosevelt” deftly lifted TR’s lifelong Maine ties and wove them into a colorful read.
In his preface, Vietze explains how he and Erickson discovered they were both working on books about the Boon Island shipwreck and decided to join forces. I suspect Erickson, who lives in Portsmouth where the survivors recuperated, provided much of the research and Vietze the writing; such shotgun marriages can be difficult, and at times “Boon Island” bogs down in dutifully recounting the facts.
But the story is powerful and the writers don’t pander or exaggerate. Those who believe history is as much an ongoing debate about motive and fact as are the squabbles that fill tomorrow’s front pages will find a rich and informative tale here.