John J. Stevens’ Fire Island is set in a time in history when the United States is still just a fledgling nation, a time and strife and change. Every man and woman has a chance to change the course of his or her own history, in a time when possibilities are especially within reach. William Trask became enamored of sailing at a very young age, and becomes one of the finest ship Captains of all time.
Storms and bad weather are a force of nature and quell the mightiest of the ships; when running product from ports around the world the ships then are faced with one of their biggest challenges. But Trask, in command of Young America, has had an uneventful voyage, for the most part. It is only as he approaches his final destination that his luck has run out. He, along with his crew, which includes his 14-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 hotbed of danger and shipwrecks.
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 of 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 cook is in terrible condition. Trask, himself not caring at this point about living or 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, the two 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.