by Bethany M. Dunbar, July 24, 2010
I apologize for the gap in posts here, but I have a good excuse. I’ve been spending time with family. Jim and I traveled to Colorado to a family reunion. He comes from a huge, welcoming, boisterous family of athletes — skiers, hikers, mountain bikers and people with horses and even yaks and peacocks. So when I got back I was tired but happy.
I got to hike up to 9,000 feet one day, and we started at 6,700 feet which is 4,700 feet higher than where I live. I had to go slowly, but I did it. We got a free gondola ride back down and felt like we had earned it. We did some mountain biking and soaked in the hot springs in Steamboat Springs where Jim grew up.
Jim’s father, Bill Bowes, reminds me in many ways of my father. He was in the Tenth Mountain Division ski troops in World War II. My dad was a radio man in a bomber airplane in the South Pacific. These men are in their eighties and so incredibly tough, confident, and charismatic. They saved the world.
We got back from this vacation in time to celebrate my mother’s 90th birthday with family and friends. It was a beautiful day. We had a picnic outside at my parents’ home, the stone house they built some 40 years ago. My son cooked hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill while my niece and the neighbors’ kids swam in the pond.
So it seems a good time to post a couple of book reviews that show my roots. These two are reviews I wrote for the Chronicle of books written by my uncle, Elliott Merrick. He was my father’s brother and died in 1997. One of his books, Green Mountain Farm, was written about his time in Craftsbury, Vermont. Others are about his time in Labrador. My father is a retired English professor and a poet. The writing gene runs like a raging river through the Merrick side of the family.
On the way back from Colorado, traveling with Jim’s cousin’s son, Nick, who lives in Brooklyn, I mentioned my uncle and one of his books that has just been reprinted by North Atlantic Books in Berkeley, California. True North. I know that book, said Nick, who is in his twenties. Somehow I wasn’t surprised as these stories seem to have a following that continues to grow.
The Long Crossing captures the spirit of the north
reviewed by Bethany Merrick Dunbar, the Chronicle, July 15,1992
The Long Crossing and Other Labrador Stories, by Elliott Merrick, published by the University of Maine Press in Orono, paperback, 136 pages.
For most people, the ’20s “roared” with activity in the cities. For my uncle, the author of The Long Crossing and Other Labrador Stories, the ’20s roared with the sound of the rapids on the great rivers in Labrador.
Elliott Merrick left an advertising job in the city in the ’20s to volunteer at the Grenfell Mission on the Labrador Coast. From this experience came much of his writing. This collection is his eighth book, many of which are set in Labrador and thereabouts.
His best-known book locally is Green Mountain Farm, set in Craftsbury where he and his wife, Kate Austen Merrick, lived during the Depression.
Mr. Merrick met my Aunt Kay, as we knew her, at the Grenfell Mission. She was the inspiration for Northern Nurse, another of his books and certainly one of his best works. She is sketched also in a story called “Passing the Time” in this new book. The story is written in the first person as Nurse Austen describes how she spends her time at the mission:
“I packed my clothes bag with spare socks and mittens in case we should get wet, and I took my sealskin boots on the chance of a thaw. You never know what will happen on a trip.”
The trip is a long dogsled ride in bitter, below-zero weather, and Mr. Merrick describes it beautifully in his understated style.
“We hopped on again, tingling and excited, and all of a sudden a great joy flooded me. It had been impossible to start, it was so cold and grim and miserable. But here we were, miles from home already in the sunshine. Already the hills of home were blue behind us, the sun warm, the dogs galloping, the komatik surging. The daily miracle had engulfed us again, and I was ashamed that only an hour ago existence had been a burden and oblivion in my bed the only joy.”
She arrives at her destination, a cabin in the woods, to find a sickly family struggling to survive. The mother has sores all over her face and body, having contracted a disease called septicemia. The 11-year-old daughter has a badly scalded and infected leg, and a new baby is squalling constantly from hunger, a discharging umbilical cord, and diaper rash.
In the course of the story, Nurse Austen also treats an Indian girl with convulsions, a baby with snow blindness, and, among other patients, an 18-month-old boy with a swollen bean in his nose.
The title of the story comes from a letter Nurse Austen finally gets a chance to sit and read after everyone else is tended to, late one night. She has a stack of letters.
“I was so sleepy I read only one. It was summertime in Australia now, and the jacaranda trees were in flower. My dear Aunt Myrna wanted to know, ‘How ever do you pass the time in that godforsaken place?’ ”
Although some of this book is fiction and other parts true, it seems impossible and unnecessary to separate the two. The book is certainly truer to the feeling of that time and place than a flat, factual account would be. Reading it, you can feel what it would be like to spend months away from home on a trap line. You can understand the relationship between a trapper and an Indian who makes off with some of the trapper’s grub, and how they might come to terms, as the title of this story describes, “Without Words.”
The focus of the book comes at the end, a novella called the Long Crossing. It describes a journey attempted by three men in 1903 from the Northwest River village, up the Naskaupi and George Rivers to Ungava Bay. The trip failed because the men took the wrong river, and winter set in before they could get back to civilization.
One of the men, Leonidas Hubbard, an editor of Outing magazine from New York, died in the attempt. Two years later, his wife, Mina, made the trip herself and was the first to complete the long trek.
Another of the original travelers, Dillon Wallace, also made the trip separately the same summer as Mrs. Hubbard in 1905. He arrived at Ungava Bay considerably later than Mrs. Hubbard.
Three separate books had already been published by the individuals when Mr. Merrick decided to tie the accounts together in one book. Since there were hard feelings between the groups, this had not been done before. The result is a fascinating tale of hardship and courage, egotism and generosity.
In a foreword, Mr. Merrick notes that the land and people of Labrador are much different today:
“Dogteams are rare or nonexistent. Indians no longer fashion canoes by hand. The upper flow of the Naskaupi River has been diverted. The Grand Falls have been harnessed, and the Smallwood and Ossokmanuan reservoirs now cover land where many of the events recounted here took place. However, much of that vast wilderness remains lonely and untouched.”
The book seems particularly timely in light of debate over Hydro-Quebec and the importance of creating more hydro power versus keeping that wilderness natural. It captures the flavor of the north in a way that a slide show would fail.
Since I am a relative of Mr. Merrick’s, I probably have a biased view of his writing ability. You can take my praise for what it’s worth, but I truly believe (as other family members have put it) that the guy really can “sling the lingo.”
For those who remember my Uncle Bud, he is now retired and living in Asheville, North Carolina, with his second wife, Pat. My Aunt Kay died in 1989, the year my daughter, Katie, was born. Bud still sails and writes, including a letter to his niece in Vermont once in a while.
Cruising at Last is an adventure to experience
reviewed by Bethany Merrick Dunbar, the Chronicle, October 20, 2003
Cruising at Last by Elliott Merrick; published in 2003 by The Lyons Press in Guilford, Connecticut; 250 pages; hardcover; $22.95.
When I think about sailing, I get a romantic notion of riding the wind and waves, searching for lost treasure — pieces of eight or doubloons or some such.
Cruising at Last makes me slow down, take a deep breath, and remember that the experience itself is the treasure.
I should admit my bias right here at the beginning. Elliott Merrick, who died in 1997, was my uncle. We shared more than the name. We shared a value system that demands as much time as possible spent outdoors, and we shared a passion for writing.
He was so much older than my father, Addison, that he was almost like a grandfather to me. But despite the age difference and the fact he lived in North Carolina, we also shared a few precious great times together. One of those was when I was about six years old. We had a sailing adventure in the thick fog that only confirmed for me the belief that my uncle was magic, a wizard of sorts. How else could he figure out where the heck we were supposed to go in that stuff and get us there safely without even seeming the slightest bit perturbed. We could see about two feet of cold gray water around the boat. Everything else in the world was just dense white fog.
The boat itself was like magic. Everything fit and worked. The little bunks were so cozy, and the kitchen (I should say galley) was incredibly efficient. My aunt Kay could make any meal in it. The rocking of the sea was like a physical lullaby, and the craft itself was beautiful. It was an extension of my uncle, who had built it himself.
This book was compiled after his death. “Bud” (the nickname everyone in the family called him) gave his daughter, my cousin Susan Merrick Hoover, the manuscript before he died. She was the driving force behind editing and publishing his last book.
The older generation in Craftsbury will remember Elliott Merrick for the ten years he lived there, part of it during the Great Depression. He taught at Craftsbury Academy and at the University of Vermont, and he wrote a book about living here, called Green Mountain Farm. He is the author of several books, including Northern Nurse, about my aunt Kay’s experience nursing in the wilds of Labrador where dog sled was the main form of transportation.
Readers who are familiar with Elliott Merrick’s writing will know that they can believe me — despite my bias — when I say that Cruising at Last is a book well worth reading. The rest of you should take a chance.
Mr. Merrick’s writing is simple and clear, amusing and evocative of the moment. Reading this book is the next best thing to cruising up the East Coast from Georgia to Maine and back. It’s based on his real experiences and includes a description of building his 20-foot sloop, the Sunrise.
This is how the book is dedicated:
A boat is not just a boat, you know. It is a winged Pegasus, or a Magic Carpet, taking you to new places, new friends, and new thoughts.
Millions of people would like to go cruising in their own sailboats. If my wife and I at sixty and seventy could do it, so can they. This book is for them.
Here is a description of sailing in Annapolis Harbor:
Three big tankers lay at anchor out in the bay, one half empty, the other two loaded. It seems to be a favorite place where they wait for a dock or a cargo in Baltimore. Something about tankers seen from a small boat is so monstrous, so uncompromisingly, unutterably ugly you’d have to rise early in the morning to even think up anything so hideous.
We galloped and surfed, leaping, pitching, surging, slowing between waves and gathering ourselves for another and another toboggan down the backs of hurrying combers. First the stern kicks up and the bow is depressed as we fly in a whirlwind of speed that sings; then the stern sinks and the bow rises as we slow in the trough. The sails are engines hurling us through the world, strong, light, so fragile and yet so successfully coping with nature’s savage forces they resemble a bird’s wings riding the gale; I kept jumping in my mind from birds to horses, our motion like riding some fleeting steed hour after hour, pursued and among the white horses of the sea. We cannot quite plane as we used to in some of the centerboarders we have owned. That is because of our keel, with its bulb on the bottom of the fin; also the weight of cruising gear. But we feel as though we are soaring faster than the speed of sound, and we take joy in the knowledge that our keel boat stands up to very strong winds in a way no racing centerboarder can possibly equal.
Mr. Merrick did a lot of writing about the natural world, but his love of human nature shines through here as well. A good share of the adventure of journeys like these is meeting other sailing and boat people.
After managing to get through two nasty thunderstorms in New York, not long after tacking by the Statue of Liberty, the Merricks found a spot to anchor. While warming up with a cup of tea, Mrs. Merrick noticed a boy in a little plastic-foam sailboat. His sail was ripped, and he had no oars. He was trying to paddle with his rudder but making little progress:
“We couldn’t let that go on, so I quickly buoyed the anchor, cranked the outboard, and went over to him in handy little Sunrise. ‘You want some help?’ I asked.
“I tied a line to his bow and he came aboard. He didn’t have a line of his own. His sail was torn clean in half from leach to luff. After taking it down, we motored back to our anchor.
“His name was Harold. But that’s all we could learn. We couldn’t get him to say anything except his name. He wouldn’t take a cup of tea or a cookie. He just sat on the stern deck clasping his knees, shivering occasionally, and looking a picture of misery.”
The Merricks delivered Harold to another boat headed to shore.
“Just before stepping across, Harold surprised us by putting out his hand, giving us a big smile, and saying, ‘Thanks a lot.’
“As the harbor chop rocked me in my bunk that night, I was thinking that odd things occur when you’re cruising, living a sort of catch-as-catch-can life, never knowing what will happen next. It was a blessed relief for us, of course, to have made a safe passage through menacing New York City, but the event of the day was Harold…
“I decided New York City is big, but the return of Harold’s confidence was big, too. I wondered if he’d grow up to be a sailor, often scared, sometimes brave, always trying to be more of the latter.”
A transformation occurs during the book as the Merricks become more knowledgeable and confident. They find they can worry less and enjoy the experience all the more.
“So what is it, this cruising racket?” Mr. Merrick writes in the last chapter of the book. “Just self-indulgence, just the luxury yachting has always implied? No sir! It is storms and calms, lonely beaches, rivers, harbors, clouds, the wind…
“Work, sweat, pain, exhaustion, strength, peace, and exhilaration go into it! Like love, it is dangerous, for you can get hurt in your innermost being — as when you fail yourself and flunk out. But — also like love — it’s ultimate ecstasy and joy in the world, the natural, unashamed, primitive, naked, lovely world.”
These words were written some time ago — maybe 25 years ago. But they are possibly more relevant now than they were at the time of writing. Not everyone can have the experience of building a boat and sailing up and back on the East Coast for as long as it takes. But anyone can appreciate the feeling of freedom and opportunity such a journey would bring. In times when it’s harder and harder to step out of the rat race to actually have such a wonderful adventure, Cruising at Last offers the next best thing — a well-written description of how it all feels and the hope that it’s not out of reach.