It’s one of those things, like where were you when you heard about JFK’s assassination? Or, in this century, where were you when you heard about the planes and the Towers? Those of us who grew up in the 1950s — of us born in few years between the end of the Second World War and when Confederation pupped — remember when we first heard about the sinking of the Caribou.
I was sitting at the side of Granny’s kitchen table looking at the picture hung on the wall opposite me. That picture — the iconic picture of the SS Caribou with portraits of the crew bordering the steamship in centre — has remained in my mind.
“That’s the Caribou, my son. The Germans blowed her up with a torpedo in the war,” Granny said.
Kevin Major was at Minette’s house and he has listed her as one of the three people to whom he has dedicated his new book — Land Beyond the Sea [Breakwater Books], a story about the sinking of the Caribou.
When she became the target of U-boat 69, the Caribou was essentially a passenger ferry sailing regularly between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, essentially a vessel, "caught in the vagaries of war.”
Land Beyond the Sea is historical fiction at its home-grown best. It’s a local story although not as widely known a some of the “greater” tragedies on the scale of the Titanic’s sinking, for instance. Kevin Major’s book, however, has refloated the Caribou, allowing her to be spotted in contemporary searchlight beams.
And rightly so, eh b’ys?
Two books came to my mind as I read Land Beyond the Sea. The first book was Cassie Brown’s Death on the Ice: The Great Newfoundland Sealing Disaster of 1914 . My thought was this: “Kevin Major is doing for the Caribou tragedy what Cassie Brown did for the Newfoundland disaster” — focusing on the individuals involved and, thereby, making the story believably personal for his readers.
The second book was John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down , a WWII story set in occupied France.
As an aside, notice — especially if this kind of information gives you the shivers — that Steinbeck’s novel was published in March of 1942, merely six months or so before the actual sinking of the Caribou.
It’s easy to understand why Death on the Ice came to my mind, I s’pose — both it and Land Beyond the Sea are Newfoundland tragedies, albeit of a different ilk.
But why The Moon is Down?
The Moon is Down is told from the point of view of a German officer, at publication time an unpopular perspective among many of Steinbeck’s readers.
Interestingly, Kevin Major uses first-person point-of-view narration for only one of the characters in Land Beyond the Sea — Ulrich Gräf, captain of U-boat 69.
And, get this, Gräf’s thoughts when he sees the coast of Newfoundland: “Newfoundland on a rough day is magnificent, its lofty cliffs indomitable, the surf capable of no more than playing at its feet.”
Shortly afterwards, this German commander who admires Newfoundland’s rugged splendor, and believing what he is about to do to the Caribou is “neither right nor wrong”, issues a decisive, deadly command: “Permission to fire!”
Something to think about, eh b’ys?
Incidentally, the surf “no more than playing” at the feet of Newfoundland’s cliffs is gem-dandiest image in this book.
And another thing — history allows us to call the Germans sons-a-bitches Bad Guys of WWII. As a Caribou survivor aboard a lifeboat says: “There’s a war on. The Germans don’t give a good goddamn about children.”
I eventually thought of a third book — Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel about his being a prisoner of war in Dresden when the allies carpet-bombed that German city in 1945, igniting a firestorm that burned everything, and everyone in its path, including babes in arms.
Also, get this — my thoughts weren’t far from Kevin Major’s.
At the end of Land Beyond the Sea, Hank Scheller, a Caribou survivor, is bombardier aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress, when, over the course of ten minutes, “…771 tons of hellfire descend from the skies over Dresden.”
Just now, I’ve thought of a Woody Guthrie song — “The Sinking of the Rueben James”, a song about a convoy escort, the first US naval ship sunk by German U-boats in WWII.
“Did you have a friend on the good Rueben James?” Guthrie asks.
I suggest Land Beyond the Sea asks a similar question: Did you have a friend, or kin — no matter how distant — on the Caribou?
Thank you for reading.
Harold Walters lives in Dunville, Newfoundland, doing his damnedest to live Happily Ever After. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.