(The following guest review is by David Chau, who is a writer of creative nonfiction, future author of a historical narrative set in Edo-Period Japan, and a University of King’s College MFA graduate in search of great stories. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.)
To outsiders eating their lobster suppers in New Glasgow or fish and chips on the patio at North Rustico Harbour with a decor of lobster traps and fishing nets watching the sun setting into the sea, life on the east coast seems idyllic.
After reading Quentin Casey’s book The Sea Was in Their Bood (2017, Nimbus Publishing), I discovered the realities were anything but.
The book is about the disappearance of a fishing vessel, Miss Ally, from the tight-knit community of Woods Harbour in Nova Scotia, bonded by fishing and God. The story centers around the five young men on board. And it is through this tragedy that we understand how fragile life at sea can be, and how the connections within the community are not as robust as it would seem.
The first part of the book gives background information on each of the five men crew of the ill-fated Miss Ally and their families, including Katlin Nickerson (the captain), Billy Jack Hatfield, Joel Hopkins, Cole Nickerson, and Tyson Townsend. As young adults, they were just getting started with new job opportunities, loving partners, and young children. But the draw of the sea was always strong.
Hatfield’s father said it best regarding the destiny of many of the youth in his town and no doubt applicable to many other fishing towns and villages along the coast in the Maritimes: “We was born up in this area and that’s what we done and that’s the only thing we knew.” Indeed, it seems that there is no other life outside fishing, particularly for boys brought up near the sea.
Sandy Stoddard, a local Woods Harbour skipper and spokesperson for the community, said of the captain of the Miss Ally, “Katlin was a fisherman. I truly believe Katlin was God’s plan for his life.” If he had a pulpit, Stoddard could easily be the Father Mapple character of Melville’s Moby Dick who asked his “beloved shipmates”: “What is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?”
In a community like Woods Harbour, career choices are few. After all, what need is there for school when students can drop out to sign up for fishing trips and come back with thousands of dollars in their pockets, enough to buy trucks and three-wheelers to speed down the main street. With so much money in the hands of the young, “It seems Woods Harbour is the place for boys that never grow up…a Neverland,” said Shelby, partner of one of the missing men.
Behind this “Neverland” however, the author Casey hints in his book on darker themes of secrecy and paranoia, not untypical of many smaller communities, a world of whispers and side-ward glances.
A friend of one of the missing men, who wished to remain anonymous in the book, said:
“What scares me is that we do live in a small community. I’m scared about what they might think about me talking about it. Are they going to be mad because I said some good things about Tyson? That’s what worries me. I see these people everyday. I don’t want to upset them.”
In another incident at Katlin’s funeral when Stoddard refers to Katlin as the Sidney Crosby of the fishery, Casey reveals a conflict that seems to run deep within the psyche of the community:
The comparison startles and angers many in the church. Crosby is a Stanley Cup winner and Olympic gold medalist; Katlin helmed a boat that sank with his crew aboard. The comparison seems unwarranted. Some want to walk out immediately but don’t.
Why the animosity? Was the comparison too sensational, too commercial to use hockey stars such as Crosby? Is there a Maritime code that praises a down-to-earth humility in a biblical sense where “the meek will inherit the earth?”
Or was there blame cast on Katlin, the captain, who took four others down with him because of his inexperience and alleged recklessness? Indeed, it is Della, Katlin’s mother, who will replay again and again in her mind the events that could have happened on board the ship—the question of What if? that would consume her and lead her down a road of depression. Like all the other families, Della will not find closure. She will, however, find contentment in her acts of charity later in time.
The author intricately weaves in dialogue from family, friends, and government personnel to give us an omniscient and authoritative view of this tragedy. Unlike Sebastien Junger of The Perfect Storm who speculated on what may have happened aboard the Andrea Gail, Casey was able to use the phone calls from the ship to family and authorities to give an accurate account of what was happening on board the Miss Ally as it battled the storm. But alas, the moment when all was lost will be known only to the sea, and only when it gives up its dead, will answers be found.
As Joseph Conrad once wrote, “There is nothing more enticing, disenchanting, and enslaving than the life at sea,” all evident in Casey’s story of a fishing town confronting tragedy.