With her first book — "The Lighthouse Stevensons," about Robert Louis Stevenson's lighthouse-building ancestors — British writer Bella Bathurst proved she...
“The Wreckers: A Story of Killing Seas and Plundered Shipwrecks, from the 18th Century to the Present Day”
by Bella Bathurst
Houghton Mifflin, 326 pp., $25
With her first book — “The Lighthouse Stevensons,” about Robert Louis Stevenson’s lighthouse-building ancestors — British writer Bella Bathurst proved she could hold her own against Sebastian Junger when it came to conjuring perfect storms on the page. With her next book, the novel “Special,” she caught the clan mentality of teenage girls running amok, in a distaff variation on “Lord of the Flies.”
Now, in “The Wreckers,” she blends the roles of maritime historian and armchair sociologist as she weighs the lore surrounding Britain’s “wreckers,” coastal villagers who scavenged the ships that were wrecked on their inhospitable shores.
Roaming from Orkney in the north to Cornwall in the south, Bathurst brilliantly illuminates the peculiarities of geography that made shipwrecks so frequent on certain stretches of the British coast. She’s also intrepid as she tries to confirm or debunk the myths surrounding Britain’s wreckers — that they deliberately lured ships to their doom with false lights, or that they killed inconvenient wreck survivors who might stop them from getting at the ship’s loot.
What she learns is that the line between salvaging and plundering can be awfully thin at times, and that, in impoverished rural areas where shipwrecks were an economic windfall for the locals, the morality of wrecking was, and still is, an ambiguous hybrid of a finders-keepers mentality and an almost puritanical waste-not-want-not ethic. The most brutal wrecking tactics — chopping off fingers, for instance, to get at a corpse’s rings — belong to the distant past. Still, as recently as 1997, with the stranding of a ship in a cove a stone’s throw from the largest town on the Scilly Isles, wrecked goods have been greeted as legitimate free merchandise by the locals.
Bathurst conscientiously informs us about the laws that were supposed to guide conduct in scavenging of both modern and historical shipwrecks, and she has all the appropriate statistics ready at hand — including the fact that there are “between 30,000 to 33,000 known wrecks around the British coastline.”
But for most of the book, she’s simply having fun, turning a wry phrase, relaying a bizarre (or humorous, or shocking) anecdote, delighting in the sea-weathered rogues and eccentrics she meets, and offering photo-vivid descriptions of the sandbars, whirlpools and grim cliffs and reefs she comes across.
The result is a book that’s irresistible. “The Wreckers” is organized geographically rather than chronologically, with particular attention given to Cornwall and the Scilly Isles, Pentland Firth (between the northern tip of Scotland and Orkney), the Thames estuary (where mere “wrecking” in the 17th and 18th centuries developed into organized crime) and Goodwin Sands — those shifting sandbars in the middle of the English Channel that, as Bathurst puts it, “pick themselves up and walk.”
Bathurst is blunt in stating the central question of the book: “Anyone who burgles or robs or loots goods from a derelict house knows they are breaking the law … So what exactly makes ships and the sea so different? Why should it be that anything touched by salt water is also considered to have been washed clean of ownership?”
She finds a variety of answers. Simple greed is one. Self-administered reward for rescuing crew and passengers from peril is another. Then there’s the intuitive sense that bounty from shipwrecks is “a kind of divine justice, the sea playing Robin Hood.”
Bathurst herself, by book’s end, sees wrecking as consistent with English character: “We prefer a broad moral fudge to narrow fanaticism, we dislike outside interference, and we have never been averse to taking a little bit extra on the side.”
Whatever the truth is, Bathurst makes her quest for it a nonstop reading pleasure. Whether she’s describing the white cliffs of England’s southeast coast as “the unscrubbed colour of a nation left out in the rain,” or delighting in an interviewee’s eyebrows “so large and lively it seems he’s got a couple of cairn terriers strapped to his forehead,” her prose is a treat.
Even better are her loving renditions of her interviewees’ voices. “In bad weather, I was always at my best,” one Scottish fisherman tells her. “On a fine day, that was the time that a treacherous thing could happen, not a coarse day. I’ve seen me get tricked on a fine day at sea. Not with a gale of wind, but with the sea.”
Filled with factual surprises and delivered with raconteurial zest, “The Wreckers” makes a perfect summer read.Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@ seattletimes.com. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998, and has also published four novels.