The Peripatetic Reviewer

by Edward Weeks
SURVIVE THE SAVAGE SEA
by Dougal Robertson
Praeger, $7.95
Only an extraordinarily resourceful mariner, a skipper out of Hakluyt, could have survived to write this perilous and intimate chronicle. It is the very human account of how Robertson and his wife, their three children, and Robin, a Welsh college student, bested the squawls, the Doldrums, and the broiling sun of the Pacific for thirty-seven days, first in an inflatable raft, then in a nine-foot dinghy with a six-inch freeboard, after their schooner had been attacked and sunk by killer whales. Dougal was no amateur. During his twelve years of seafaring in the British merchant marine, most of it in the Far East, he had acquired a master mariner’s certificate, a memory of charts, and a capacity for make-do.
In 1951 he had fallen in love with Lyn, who was then nursing in Hong Kong, and after their marriage they decided to raise a family on a dairy farm in North Staffordshire. It was hard work and slim picking, and in 1970 they sold out and invested the proceeds in Lucette, a forty-threefoot schooner of nineteen tons, in which, after it had been caulked and the hull planking renewed, they planned to circumnavigate the globe with their children. They left Falmouth, England, at the end of January, 1971, and weathered a sixtymile-an-hour gale off Finisterre which proved that Lucette was seaworthy. After drying out in Lisbon they enjoyed fair weather to the Canary Islands and thence to the Bahamas, where Anne, their oldest, remained ashore. The hurricane season they spent in Miami, where the kids caught up with their schooling, and there they purchased the dinghy (which was to be their lifesaver) and the raft. Then early in the new year, after a brief landing at the Galapagos, they headed out into the largest, loneliest stretch of ocean in the world. Aboard were the skipper and Lyn; Douglas, their oldest son (eighteen), the twins, Neil and Sandy (twelve), and Robin Williams, who was hitchhiking to New Zealand.
Two and a half days out Dougal was taking an early morning fix with the sextant “when sledgehammer blows of incredible force struck the hull . . . the noise of the impact almost deafening my ears to the roar of inrushing water.” In the scramble to abandon ship each seized what he could, the sharp vegetable knife, the water containers, a bag of onions and another of oranges, a box of flares; the raft inflated with a bang and they were all safely aboard with the halfswamped dinghy tied astern in the few minutes before the Lucette, their home for eighteen months, “slowly curtsied below the waves.” Douglas, who had grabbed the huge Genoa sail and a spool of fishing line, called the turn. “Killer whales. All sizes, about twenty of them. Sandy saw one with a big V in its head. I think three of them hit us at once.”
They were out of the shipping lane, without maps, compass, instruments of any kind, steering by sun and stars, and knowing that the Humboldt Current was bearing them north into the Doldrums. Dougal, with a makeshift rig and a sea anchor for protection in a storm, estimated that their nearest hope was the coast of Costa Rica, perhaps fifty days away. Water was rationed from the start, the rain funneled through a tarpaulin into the empty containers. They breakfasted on flying fish, which fell into their cockpit, they wrestled sea turtles into the raft, killed them, drank the blood, relished the eggs, and hung the steaks to dry. When the raft wore out, the six of them were cramped into the dinghy. Dougal with improvised spear would fling aboard a fish of twenty-five pounds while the famished frantically trimmed ship. He kept their little craft seaworthy while Lyn, with her unshakable faith, made light of their boils and sunburn and thirst; kept them singing the Scottish and Welsh ballads, and at the worst of times, “For Those in Peril on the Sea.” She conjured up their happy times of the past and the meals they would eat in “Dougal’s Kitchen” once they were ashore. They were always accompanied by sharks, some longer than the dinghy; when the big ones bumped their bottom, Dougal would drive them off with his spear. It was the human spirit which sustained their punishing fight for survival, and in their long struggle there are two remarks a landlubber will not soon forget: Lyn’s insistence to Dougal on their first day, “We must get these boys to land!” and Dougal’s angry remonstrance to her when his endurance had reached the breaking point just before their rescue, “Lyn, if you don’t be quiet and stop nagging, I’ll leave you and go to sea!”
A LIFE
by Wright Morris
Harper & Row, $5.95
Floyd Warner, the hero of this skillfully interwoven novel, had been born in the family homestead in Merrick County, Nebraska, and he had been a scoffer for as far back as he could remember. He was the only son of a pontificating Adventist and as he rebelled against everything his father did, it pleased him to stay home on the Sabbath and read the works of Colonel Ingersoll while his five sisters and his parents were at church. Short, slight, and stubbornly independent, Floyd hired himself out as a threshing hand at the age of fifteen and never returned to his father’s house. He did keep in touch with his favorite sister, Viola, sending back to her postcards with taunting messages about the Almighty, which he thought would rile her, and which she read for what they were, a signal of his love and his loneliness. When he had saved enough to marry, he courted Muriel who was part Indian, Muriel who had turned his thoughts away from the big soft Clayton girls when he watched her being baptized in the river, her head low to the water, her arms across her breast so imploringly. They made their home on the bank of the Pecos River in New Mexico, where for seventeen years he ground a meager living as a sheep rancher. They were compatible, there were no children, and, on Muriel’s sudden death, the shell in which he lived began to harden. His second marriage to a younger woman might as well not have happened it ended so quickly; he closed out and began the wandering which finally ended in a trailer colony in California.
All this is in the past but not beyond counting as the story begins. At eighty-two, Warner is now the last survivor of his family, an old man in the eyes of the public, though that is not the way he sees himself, nor is it the affectionate view held by some in the trailer colony. But he feels the sadness of having outlived his contemporaries and the mystery of death, which has so recently claimed his sister Viola. There is no one left to give him solace. In his 1927 Maxwell he heads back for Nebraska to visit her grave and to attend to her effects. With him is the eleven-year-old orphan boy who had been living with Warner since his parents, relatives by marriage, were killed in an automobile accident the year before. Warner hopes that the boy may find some of his own people back in Nebraska. On the way he picks up Stanley and the girl, Joy, a pair of hippies; the boy falls in with them and through their carelessness Viola’s place is set afire and burned to the ground. Feeling his age, musing on what had been, and lightheaded, he starts back for California; and in the first diner there are two contenders for his front seat: a white bum with dirty bare feet and a stolid Indian. It is the Indian who wins out. And so begins his strange terminal journey.
The pleasure in this short book is in following the revelation of Floyd’s character as his skeptical, clean, practical mind shuttles back and forth; I feel less sure of his misty anticipation of death. He is not heroic, yet episode by episode, almost grudgingly at times, we concede our sympathy to Age.
DEPARTING GLORY:
Theodore Roosevelt as ex-President
by Joseph L. Gardner
Scribner’s, $12.50
When President McKinley was assassinated on September 6, 1901, T.R., the Vice President, at fortytwo became the youngest man to assume the highest office. The week after McKinley’s funeral, Roosevelt’s friend Nicholas Murray Butler, the energetic president of Columbia University, was in Washington, and before dining together the two men went for a walk. T.R.. speaking with emotion, confessed his own sense of inadequacy, but Butler reassured him: he would do well and was certain of election in 1904. “The real problem that confronts you,” Butler continued, “is whether you can be a sage at fifty. If you can, your permanent reputation seems to me certain. If you cannot, then the outlook is different.” It is this contingency, so wisely predicted, that Mr. Gardner has enlivened in his well-written, sympathetic, good-tempered book.
For all his misgivings, T.R. soon took command. He brought suit against the Northern Securities Company, the first of the several giant combinations to be dissolved for restraint of trade. He stepped into the middle of the coal strike, insisting that the operators should accept the findings of a presidential commission. He set in motion the building of the Panama Canal. What with his tennis-playing Cabinet, his horseback rides in Rock Creek Park, and the happiness with which his family had taken over the White House, T.R. was having a bully time.
Naturally, he had his heart set on reelection. As Mr. Dooley said, “Tis Teddy alone that’s runnin’, and he ain’t r’runnin’, he’s gallopin’.” The statement which T.R. issued to the press on election night, 1904, concluded with the sentence, “Under no circumstances will I be a candidate for or accept another nomination.” Once released, writes Gardner, the words could never be recalled. T.R. eventually backed them up by choosing William Howard Taft as his successor.
He had just turned fifty when he left the capital, and the problem of what to do next was, at the outset, fascinating. T.R. needed to supplement his income and happily became a contributing editor to The Outlook at an annual salary of $12,000. The naturalist in him, so long cooped up, was eager to make an African safari with his second son Kermit, to be partly financed by the ten articles he was to write for Scribner’s for a fee of $50,000. It was a triumphant trip, with many specimens for the National Museum, marred only by the recurrence of the fever he had picked up eleven years earlier in the Cuban Campaign and by the rumor that Taft had broken with a few of Roosevelt’s favorites. From the White Nile he returned to Europe where, restored to good health, he visited one crowned head after another, liking them all with the exception of Queen Wilhelmina. He pictured the monarchs writing to “tell the one ahead what sort of barbarian I was and what I might say. . . . In fact, I think each ruler screwed his throne down a little tighter as I approached.”
But the acclaim awaiting him when he landed at New York was more than hero worship; his Progressive friends were there to tell him that the Republican Party was in a bad way and that Roosevelt’s duty was to jump in and save it. His break with Taft was followed by his unsuccessful bid for the nomination at the convention in Chicago, and then by his fateful words, “My hat is in the ring,” as the leader of the new Bull Moose insurgents. As Mr. Gardner shows, T.R. had his private misgivings, knew the odds were against him, and was his heroic self when a would-be assassin shot at him at a distance of less than thirty feet as he was about to speak in Milwaukee. The bullet had been slowed by passing through the manuscript, a long one, and by the iron spectacles case in his pocket, and it was still in his chest when he stood up to make his rambling discourse.
He was not to die a martyr, but the dismay of his defeat by Woodrow Wilson and the physical exhaustion of his long expedition to explore the River of Doubt in Brazil took their toll, and he was an old and tired man when he emerged from the jungle in 1916. A fighter to the last, he argued passionately for our joining the Allies, and he pleaded with the Secretary of War and with President Wilson to be allowed to lead a hand-picked division to France. The President was right to refuse him, for T.R. was in no condition and the discrimination would have been resented throughout the Army. The old lion retired to Sagamore Hill to lick his wounds and to live in the letters from his four sons at the front.
LIFE & LETTERS CONTRIBUTORS
Richard Todd is an associate editor of The Atlantic and a regular contributor to these pages.
Dan Wakefield is the author of several books of nonfiction as well as two novels, Going All the Way and the recently published Starting Over.
Zoltan Sarfathy is not the well-known Hungarian journalist.
Edward Weeks and Phoebe Adams write regularly for these pages.
POETS IN THIS ISSUE
John Hall Wheelock (page 46) is the author of numerous books of poetry. His first published poem appeared in 1900.
Anne Hussey (page 51) has been appointed a Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for the current academic year.