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Adrift with William Willis in the Golden Age of Rafting

A-SeaworthyWilliam Willis held many jobs and interests in his adventurous life: as lumberjack, stevedore, spiritual seeker, and novelist. At age 45, he saved a landlady’s unjustly imprisoned son by journeying to Devil’s Island, the penal colony made famous by Dustin Hoffman’s screen portrayal in Papillon. But it is Willis’s experiences rafting, inspired by Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki expedition, that Pearson chronicles with particular relish. Almost 60 when Heyerdahl made his mark, Willis researched rafting in the New York Public Library and crossed the Pacific twice in a handmade raft. His naïveté and wanderlust eventually cost him his life on his fifth long ocean voyage in 1968.
Crown. 304 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0307335941

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Pearson tells the remarkable true tale of Willis’s exploits in his nonfiction debut, Seaworthy, a rousing, old-fashioned adventure story that brims with as much wry humor as fascinating history. … For those of us fascinated by the open blue wilderness, Seaworthy slakes deliciously the thirst for a good seagoing yarn." Donna Marchetti

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Pearson places Willis firmly in the context of the Heyerdahl-inspired rafting mania of the 1950s. … [He] has given us a terrific, humorous, and enthralling portrait of a true eccentric." Robert J. Hughes

Chicago Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Pearson, one of the most successful Southern novelists working, applies his substantial narrative gifts to a hilarious, surprising, and fast-reading tale of spirited absurdity." Jillian Dunham

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Willis’s adventures read like a combination of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel and the secret scribblings of a megalomaniac. … [Willis] remains stubbornly opaque, and as the book progresses, the author’s frustration with him gradually becomes evident." John Wray

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"As T. R. Pearson conjures Willis’s many nautical adventures, they are both thrilling and bizarre. … Seaworthy occasionally suffers from a lack of sourcing, and it could have benefited from a more thorough discussion of relevant topics like the physiology of dehydration." Florence Williams

Critical Summary

The prolific Southern author of Glad News of the Natural World (1985), among other books, T. R. Pearson turns to the free-spirited Willis for his material in Seaworthy, the author’s first nonfiction effort. An accomplished storyteller, Pearson captures the joie de vivre of the German-born explorer, skillfully describing both Willis and the great era of exploration that spawned such interest in Thor Heyerdahl’s efforts to disprove earlier theories of sea travel. Despite Pearson’s talent, Willis remains a bit elusive, and the mariner’s motivation and some of his more eccentric ideas—his belief in telepathy, for instance—remain matters, perhaps, for other studies. All in all, Pearson admirably brings the forgotten Willis to life.

Supplemental Reading

Kon-Tiki | Thor Heyerdahl (1950): Ranked # 5 on our list "101 Crackerjack Sea Books" in our July/August 2006 issue. Norwegian biologist Heyerdahl had a theory that the South Sea islands had been settled by people journeying from thousands of miles across the ocean on rafts. He and his crew of five proved that was possible by building a balsa log raft and sailing from Peru to Puka Puka, dodging whales and fighting off sharks along the way.