three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
19-Nov-Dec-2005
user_rating: 
0

A Story of Killing Seas and Plundered Shipwrecks, from the 18th Century to the Present Day

A-Wreckers"Wreckers" were coastal villagers, Brits who watched for distressed or wrecked ships and plundered them for whatever valuable goods and usable materials they could grab. These intrepid folk, some of whom considered their practice a legitimate profession, harvested everything from lumber, silk, and fine china to slot machines, grand pianos, and malt whiskey. As the author explains, variations on the practice included salvaging goods while hapless crews drowned and luring richly laden ships into dangerous waters without regard to human life. Bathurst’s well-researched book explores the psychology and mechanics of wrecking, the culture it spawned, and the fascinating natural phenomena that have brought 33,000 vessels to their doom along Britain’s treacherous coastline.
Houghton Mifflin. 326 pages. $25. ISBN: 0618416773

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[F]or most of the book, [Bathurst’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. . . . Filled with factual surprises and delivered with raconteurial zest, The Wreckers makes a perfect summer read." Michael Upchurch

Spectator 4 of 5 Stars
"Through the small keyhole of shipwreck, this book offers a deep vision of humanity that is the more uplifting for its lack of sentimentality. I cannot recommend it too highly." Andro Linklater

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Though her subject is serious, sometimes even tragic, Bathurst’s tongue is never far from her cheek, with entertaining results. . . . Regardless of how much or how little can be proved, The Wreckers contains a treasure chest for fans of seafaring lore." Donna Marchetti

Newsday 3.5 of 5 Stars
"While The Wreckers may be partly a gleeful story of hidden whiskey bottles and salvaged grand pianos temporarily buried on farmland, Bathurst never loses sight of the reality that so many of those ‘free’ goods come with a price tag of human lives. . . . [T]he specters of lost human lives hover over every corner of the story she’s telling." Stephanie Zacharek

Economist 3 of 5 Stars
"[G]rimly fascinating. . . . She investigates rumours of false lights and false foghorns, false harbours and false dawns, and of coastlines rigged meticulously as stage sets."

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Besides a fine ability to conjure a sense of place, [Bathurst] has an eye for an invigorating analogy. . . . But she fails to overcome two serious problems endemic to the material: First, there are not enough primary sources that actually describe the act of wrecking, not least because people involved in illegal activity tend not to shout about it; second, there is no narrative arc to this account." Sara Wheeler

Critical Summary

It’s hard to write a nonfiction book with limited sources and no way to properly authenticate what you write. But award-winning Bathurst (The Lighthouse Stevensons) seems up to the task, impressing critics with the thoroughness of her research (she interviewed 200 people and read travelers’ journals and newspaper reports) and the spirited way she integrates surprising facts, entertaining anecdotes, and fictional accounts. They also credited her with striking the right tone between whimsy and sensitivity with respect to the tragedies she relates. She doesn’t avoid the moral questions that wrecking asks, either. Although some reviewers felt the book lacks a little meat and could benefit from a stronger structure, they all agreed it makes for a captivating read.

Also by the Author

The Lighthouse Stevensons The Extraordinary Story of the Building of the Scottish Lighthouses by the Ancestors of Robert Louis Stevenson (1999): Four different generations of novelist Robert Louis Stevenson’s family built and manned the stone lighthouses along the Scottish coast. This was no small feat when preparing a single stone could take 120–320 hours.