I found this book, Shipwrecks on Cape Cod by Isaac Small, in the same little library in Maywood, NJ where I found The Light Princess. In fact, I loved both these finds so much I was talking about it with one of my dad’s office assistants, Coreen, and she said “you must be my daughter from another dimension- I put both those books in the little library!” Incredible how she could have saved her time and just given them to me! So, thanks Coreen for two of my summer reads– what a fun world!
I saw a book about shipwrecks and realized that I had never read a book about shipwrecks and that I knew very little about these tragic realities. Isaac Small is the perfect author for this book, as he watched the coast off Cape Cod for 60 years. This book is originally from 1828, but Small made a point of writing this book as he says in the preface, “couched in such language that even the children may understand,” which I would say he assuredly accomplished. I read this book throughout the entirety of Saturday on the train and despite its slim size, it is jam-packed with gems.
A couple of themes I noticed after finishing the entire book were:
- The majority of shipwrecks told in this book had 1 survivor. Very often this person was not “where they were supposed to be” or could not get to where they were ordered, and while the rest of the crew (typically around 24 total passengers) died. The sole survivor would tell of what happened to the ship before the wreck– this sole survivor situation got me thinking a lot about these scenarios and how traumatic they were/are.
- The other scenario that appeared often was that when rescue did come before total destruction of the ship, the captain would refuse to leave and would often go down with his ship. The captain often kept a few other people on the boat, too, or at least convinced them to stay (not sure). This kind of loyalty is lethal.
A few of the gems that I recall from Shipwrecks —
- The first story Small is only 4 years old and witnesses a deadly wreck of the Josephus.
- One wreck the only survivor was a brown pig who swam to shore and lived a long and happy life– Small writes something like, if the pig could have talked maybe we could have figured out what happened to that ship.
- An Italian shipwreck results in the suicide of the captain– this gave another perspective on “going down with the ship”– evidently, in Italian culture if a captain is so unfortunate as to lose his ship, he may as well die since he will never be fit to command another ship. This toxic punishment process is very challenging for my 21st century mind.
In a world where we are bringing back execution for no clear reason, I guess it is best to try and understand shipwrecks and their aftermath as much as possible. Small appreciates that cataloging every shipwreck he had seen would be too depressing, and not necessarily useful. His selection is thoughtful and provocative– leaving me satisfied with a newfound basic knowledge of the historic shipwrecks that plagued the coast throughout the 19th century.
3 comments on “Shipwrecks on Cape Cod by Isaac Small”
Hmm…trying to remember if I’ve read any nonfiction about shipwrecks. Fiction, yes. Goes all the way back to the Greeks…up to Shakespeare and beyond. Love that story about Coreen. Loving the same book makes fast friends!
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I know you lived on the Cape, Alison; I think you would enjoy the memoire The House on Nauset Marsh by Wyman Richardson. It was written in 1947; there is a 50th anniversary edition. There are tales of storms, the Coast Guard and shipwrecks, but mostly it is about the beauty, nature and solitude the author experienced when he took refuge there from his busy life in Boston. It’s a lovely read.
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I lived in Mattapoisett on Buzzard’s Bay — it was the most beautiful place I ever lived for 1.5 years.
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