New Maine Times Book Review: August Gale

Posted Wednesday, May 23, 2012 in Culture

New Maine Times Book Review: August Gale


By Barbara Walsh

Globe Pequot Press, 2012.

206 Pages, $24.95

ISBN 978-0-7627-6146-3

Reviewed by Ingrid Stressenger

Family secrets and a killer hurricane converge to fuel a tale of loss, betrayal and resilience in August Gale: A Father and Daughter’s Journey Into The Storm by Pulitzer Prize winning author and Maine resident Barbara Walsh. Deftly weaving together parallel stories spanning seven decades, Walsh brings readers on the ill-fated journey of Newfoundland fishermen in 1935 and on her own family’s search for answers to questions long unspoken.  

It is August 1935 and Marystown, Newfoundland is on the brink of starvation. Cod prices are so low that there is little profit from fishing. Yet in this community of large Irish immigrant families, the only available food grows in home gardens, and winter looms large on the horizon. The men must venture out to sea. One of these men is the author’s great uncle, William Patrick “Paddy” Walsh.

Debtors have claimed Paddy’s best ships and are eyeing the family home. At once feared for his temper and envied for his success, Paddy is respected for his confidence and ability. In his twenty-five years as captain, he has never lost a man. Lillian Walsh reminds herself of this as she struggles to keep her anxiety at bay while preparing to send her husband and three sons off to sea at the height of hurricane season. Through a vivid recounting of omens and visions that plagued the doomed fishermen and their loved ones in the days leading up to the voyage, Barbara Walsh skillfully builds a foreshadowing of the tragedy to come. In August Gale, readers struggle alongside the fishermen as they endure the horrors of a merciless hurricane. These scenes are powerful, gripping, and poignant. The August Gale devastated the tiny community of three hundred, leaving forty-two children fatherless. And it devastated the author’s grandfather, Ambrose Walsh, hundreds of miles away in Brooklyn, New York.

Twenty-five years younger than his brother Paddy, Ambrose considers Paddy his father. Ambrose idolizes his brother, but knows he will never be the fisherman Paddy is. Unlike Paddy, Ambrose does not face challenges head-on, and he leaves Newfoundland for New York, cutting off all ties to his family for decades. This abandonment leads to others.

The inclusion of Ambrose developed as Barbara told her father Ronnie, Ambrose’s son, of her plan to travel to Newfoundland to learn more about Uncle Paddy and the August Gale. Ronnie holds understandable resentment and bitterness toward Ambrose, who abandoned the family, leaving them in poverty when Ronnie and his brother were young.  He cannot forgive Ambrose for the pain and hardship he caused their mother. A loving father devoted to his own family, Ronnie cannot understand such a cruel choice. Perhaps, the author hopes, it is time for her dad to come to peace with his father’s life.  Ronnie decides to join the trip, and weathers a storm of emotion that will leave readers craving relief.

Chapters in August Gale alternate with ease between the story of the hurricane and that of Ambrose. Barbara Walsh’s skills as a master storyteller shine in the seamless transitions between two distinct stories, ultimately fusing them together perfectly. Through years of research and the testimony of scores of people who shared recollections of a hurricane that forever changed Marystown and the lives of many, Walsh crafts an absorbing story. She invites readers into the homes of ancestors and relatives, to eavesdrop on their triumphs and tragedies, to feel their pain and loss as one’s own, and to cheer their resilience in the wake of life’s harshest storms, one a hurricane and one a tempest created by the human heart.

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