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Fire Island by John J. Stevens

Fire Island

by John J. Stevens

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422,600,019 (4.5)None
"This was the smell of a new nation -- a free, proud, and hard-working people. It was the smell of burgeoning confidence, of optimism, of enterprise. It seemed as if the very air shimmered with promise." So thought Moses Howland Grinnell as he walked up the Street of Ships in Lower Manhattan on the morning of November 23rd, 1857. Just days later, one of his prized vessels, Young America, returning from a trading voyage to China, wrecked off the coast of Fire Island. This shipwreck changed forever the life of the captain of the vessel William Trask. He lost his son, his crew, and one of his legs, but it also set him on a strange new course in his life that he could never have guessed. Fire Island tells the story of Trask, Grinnell and a host of other characters from the time in a gripping new historical novel from author John J. Stevens. Real historical facts and authentic people from the past are interwoven here with fictional people and events, in a beautifully-written tale of historical drama. It is a dramatic and well-written tale from the Age of Sail that artfully portrays the character of people who helped to make America what it was then, and what it is today. The story takes place from November 1857 to November 1858 on Fire Island, a barrier beach off the coast of Long Island, New York, and in lower Manhattan. A 10-mile stretch of ocean just off Fire Island became known as Wreck Valley because of the frequency of shipwrecks that occurred there. Numerous lives, ships and cargo were lost in these wrecks so close to shore. Volunteer humanitarian societies were formed to rescue and comfort survivors of shipwrecks, and the families of those who were lost. Out of those societies grew the United States Lifesaving Service, an early federal effort to formalize these volunteers into a type of civil service, much like today's fire-fighting companies. The "surfmen" were employed from October to May each year, the storm season. They performed drills, walked a "beach watch" at night, and, when called upon, executed dramatic rescues of shipwreck survivors, often in the midst of the most ferocious storms. These are the times and the people who come alive on the pages of Fire Island on an epic scale. It is a story in which you will get happily lost.… (more)



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I was a little concerned that, with the book being based on historical fact, that it would get a little boring for me. I enjoy knowing about history (occasionally), but not to the point that it sounds like a history lesson. Happily, this novel was anything but a standard school-taught history lesson.

Although the novel was fast paced, you still gathered a real feel for the characters and their personas. The mix of characters depicted throughout the novel gave a real sense of what that time in history might have been like. From the rich business owners, to the working-class captains, to the slightly on-this-side-of-the-law criminals, John J. Stevens covers them all.

There was a slight romantic twist to this story, but it did not deter away from the main theme of this novel. The telling of how the Lifesaving Stations came to be, and the men that committed themselves to them, is the main focus of this novel.

The pictures throughout the book helped you create a character's image and persona in your mind. I loved this addition to the story ... especially knowing that the majority, if not all, of these pictures were of real people from the past.

Overall, this a wonderfully written debut novel for John J. Stevens. Fluid and fast-paced, it is a novel that anyone would enjoy reading. ( )
  MRShemery | Jan 20, 2011 |
Article first published as Book Review:Fire Island by John J. Stevens on Blogcritics.

Fire Island by John J. Stevens is set in a time in history when the United States is still just a fledgling nation, it is a time and strife and change. Every man and woman has a chance to change the course of their own history, in a time when this is still possible. William Trask became enamored of sailing at a very young age, and becomes one of the finest ship Captains of all time.

Storms and weather are a force of nature and quell the mightiest of the ships and when running product from ports around the world they are one of the biggest challenges. Trask, in command of Young America, has had an uneventful voyage. It is only as he approaches his final destination that his luck has run out. He, along with his crew, which included his fourteen year old son have run into a storm that will change William’s life and begin a new course in the annuls of history.

To try and reach safety the ship is routed through the channels of Fire Island, a notorious maven of danger and ship wrecks.

Trask must seek shelter in this roughest of areas or the ship and all aboard will perish. Hoping that his luck will hold he moves forward with courage. Little does he understand the motives of those that manipulate the senses, working to turn the tide in their own favor. Trask and his charge the Young America are pulled from the safety of a deep channel, into the shallows to the side by those seeking to take advantage of the weather and bring down the great ship, leaving the spoils to be taken as plunder.

As the Young America founders, Trask loses his crew to the waves, and to his horror his son too is washed over. In the freezing cold and icy conditions there is nothing that Trask can do to save them. As day breaks only Trask and his cook are still on board, but his cooks is in terrible condition. Trask, himself not caring at this point about living or but dying now has a reason to keep fighting, he has one last crew member to save.

Living through the night protected from the worst of the icy temperatures and waves in the sail folds, they are rescued by a small group, those that came together during the worst of times to save those foolhardy enough to challenge the seas. Cassandra Wolff was one of these. Trask and his cook are rescued and looked after by Cassandra and her crew, but there is no hope for Trask as he loses his leg.

Trask is a strong and thoughtful man; he is brave in the face of danger and just a bit reckless. Even with the loss of his leg he perseveres. The death of his son has changed him and he no longer has the same mindset. He is offered another opportunity to Captain an entirely different ship and yet he decides instead to work with a newly formed and untried group put together on Fire Island called the United States Life Saving Service. It would require more work for less pay, and yet he knew that it was his calling.

Cassandra Wolff is half in love with Trask after her care of him during the dark time in his life after he lost first his son and then his leg. She is herself a very strong and brave woman, working in a profession that is still in its infancy as well. This was a time of new endeavors, with both Trask and Cassandra being at the very forefront.

John J Stevens has built a wonderful story around true events and people of the time. In Fire Island we learn the origin of the entity known as the United States Coast Guard. The history is wonderful and thought provoking, both real and well established. The characters are both real and fictional, twisted and tied together to form a story that is clear and precise, pulling you in and keeping you entertained. You can feel the pain and angst at the worst of times, the sadness and savagery of the times. The joys are more exuberant and alive at this time in history.

If you enjoy historical fiction, this is an excellent rendition of just that. The story is marvelous and the history is smooth, you do not even realize that you are learning. I was impressed with the narrative and the backgrounds that were described not just in the Americas but worldwide during this time in history.

I would recommend this book for reading groups as well as book clubs. It is a thoughtful and provoking look at the world of the past.

This Book was recieved as a free copy from the Author. All opinions are my own based off my reading and understanding of the information. ( )
  wrighton-time | Jan 15, 2011 |
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