It seems that Newfoundlanders write some of the best historical fiction around (see Gary Collins) and Kevin Major continues to uphold that distinction with Land Beyond the Sea. In my review of his 2016 novel Found Far and Wide, I said that “Mr. Major has left us wanting more, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.” So it was with great anticipation that I turned to this, the final book in his Newfoundland Trilogy.
Land Beyond the Sea is a startlingly good feat of historical fiction, based on the torpedoing of the passenger ferry SS Caribou by U-69 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in October 1942. The novel can be divided into two parts: the first dealing with the passengers of the ferry, the men on the U-boat and the actual sinking and rescue of the passengers. It is composed in a terse, suspenseful style and serves to introduce the main characters on both the U-boat and the Caribou. Mr. Major has done his homework on what it is like to be on a U-boat patrol including the tension onboard as it waits out the depth charges from the HMCS Grandmère, the unfortunate and ill-equipped minesweeper escort ship that was to protect the Caribou.
The second part follows the consequent lives of John Gilbert, ship steward and survivor of the sinking, and Ulrich Gräf, the captain of the U-boat. (As a tie-in to Found Far and Wide, John Gilbert’s stepfather is Sam Kennedy, the protagonist of the previous novel. Here, is relegated to more or less a cameo appearance.) It is the second half of the novel that really shines, as Mr. Major delves deeply and authoritatively into the minds of John Gilbert and Kapitänleutnant Ulrich Gräf post-sinking. John Gilbert is bent on revenge for the torpedoing and the loss of his Captain (and his two sons) and Bride Fitzpatrick, Chief Steward, whom he admired deeply. He tries to join up but is told to get to England and try from there, since there are no troopships leaving Newfoundland any time soon. Kapitänleutnant Ulrich Gräf, on the other hand, just wants to return alive to the U-boat base in France so he can clean up and relax. We first get a glimpse of the type of man Gräf is (and Mr. Major’s love of his homeland, one suspects) when he first sights Newfoundland while on the surface:
A U-boat commander knows better than to be lured by the sight of land but nothing had prepared me for the way that hulking rock defied the North Atlantic seas. As if its maker had chiselled breastwork of granite and dared the seas ts to exhaust themselves against it. This island in all its mockery, this jagged barricade against the unrelenting wind, against the thundery of ocean waves. Sunlight turns any landmass to good, but Newfoundland on a rough day is magnificent, its lofty cliffs indomitable the surf capable of no more than playing at its feet.
If it were not war, if I were not a navy man, I would walk this island merely to gaze on such a wild, magnificent specimen of nature. I would roam for days, sketchbook at hand, and lose myself in its wilderness.
Somewhat of an introvert, Gräf prefers to quietly drink away his time ashore, and search for companionship, which he soon finds with Elise, a nurse he met when returning from patrol. Narrated in the first-person, it is his life, beliefs and background that Mr. Major sympathetically focuses on most: his loss of his Jewish friends, the condition of Dresden when he returns home on leave, and the political and religious split between his parents:
‘The Führer could have done better than to invade Russia,’ I said.
I could feel the chill in my father’s eyes. No patriot questioned the Führer, even in the confines of his own home. Surely not a man of the Kriegsmarine.
‘And the Jews,’ said my mother. She had seen an opening and snatched it. ‘We have heard the worse.’
‘You have heard nothing, Annamarie. Rumours, that is all. Jews have been relocated.’
‘There are no Jews left in the city, Ulrich, unless they are married to someone who is not a Jew. Even they must walk the streets with a yellow star pinned to their chests. For why, I ask you. Your friend Josef, his mother wears a star. She dares not say a word to me for fear she will be, as your father puts it, relocated. Like her son. They sent Josef away. His star did him no good. Why, do you think?’
‘One day you will have us in trouble with your questions,’ Father declared, no longer suppressing his anger. ‘Then it will be too late.’
In the meantime, John Gilbert has joined the merchant crew of a convoy rescue ship, the Zamalek, wanting to do his bit to fight the Nazis by helping to rescue any torpedoing survivors, and hopefully, witness the sinking of a U-boat. Then and only then will his struggle for revenge find closure for the SS Caribou.
I read this book voraciously (as I did with Found Far and Wide) and I highly recommend it for its suspense, storytelling and authenticity of WWII conditions on both sides of the war during the Battle of the Atlantic. I am adding it to the 2019 longlist for a “The Very Best!” Book Award in the Fiction category.
Land Beyond the Sea has also been shortlisted for the 2020 Atlantic Book Awards (Atlantic Publishers Marketing Association Best Atlantic-Published Book Award Sponsored by Friesens Corporation)
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