The Perils of Gloucester
By Bradley Bagshaw
Clyde Hill Publishing, 2018
Reviewed by William L. Downing
From the King County Bar Association Bar Bulletin, August 2018
When an author in his mid-60s publishes his debut novel, you can be pretty sure he’s writing from experience and not library research. Bradley Bagshaw’s Georges Bank is a work of historical fiction set in the 19th Century with three primary venues — the north Atlantic Ocean, the courtroom and a lively brothel. Bagshaw is clearly at home and in command in at least two of these three milieus. The engaging tale he spins is centered on the docks of Gloucester, Massachusetts, where the fishing fleet ties up.
From there it reaches onto the high seas where the men do daily battle with the elements and back into the town where they live and love. Dangers abound on land and at sea, but, with the author’s practiced hand at the tiller, the story never gets blown off course.
A century after this story is set, Bagshaw happened to grow up in Gloucester, spending much of his youth in sailboats and on the docks. With a successful career as a litigator with Seattle’s Helsell Fetterman firm behind him, he now speaks with authority and insight on matters both nautical and legal.
Part seafaring tale, part romance and part courtroom drama, the book weaves the three genres together smoothly and successfully. Ray Stevens, a steady fisherman from an established seafaring family, unexpectedly falls for Maggie O’Grady — a recent Irish immigrant whom we watch evolve from Beacon Hill maid to bawdy house madam to amateur historian, astronomer and women’s rights advocate.
Steady as he goes, Ray can’t manage to avoid the gales that seem to blow up every third chapter or so. When there’s a “full-blown williwaw” and the seas get steep, spars will splinter, the tops’l may fall and anchor lines part. Ray navigates safely through it all, looking out for his crew just as Maggie looks out for hers at Fannies.
As accurately recounted, thousands of 19th-Century Gloucestermen met their deaths in pursuit of the cod on Georges Bank. The harrowing descriptions of storm-tossed schooners will leave readers feeling their hearts pumping and the salt drying on their skin.
Besides the natural perils, the working men and women of Gloucester were confronted by the greed and harshness of those moneyed interests that controlled their lives. The same laxness of law that permitted prostitution and corruption also enabled shipowners and insurance companies to cruelly take advantage of the fishermen and their families. Standing up to these two chief villains of the book, Maggie and Ray are soon having to brave the squalls of the legal system.
These confrontations lead to a tense family law negotiation session and a jury trial on a wrongful death claim. The negotiation is particularly satisfying as a party who thinks his position is one of strength finds himself gaffed and filleted by the better-prepared lawyer.
It may be that one of the villains has redeeming attributes — he stands up straight and he helps with young Maggie’s education — but he also has “the pallid complexion of a man who rarely faced the sun or a fair breeze.” In other words, he has not developed the courage and decency of the fisherfolk.
When two town fishermen are washed overboard, their widows sue the boat owner alleging the vessel was unseaworthy. Procedural intricacies of jurisdiction and remedies play a key role, but are delivered in a clear way that always advances the narrative.
It’s no knock on the author to point out that less of his life has been spent in brothels than on decks and at counsel tables. The levels of virtue and discourse inside the house of ill repute may run at an uncommonly high tide, but this all serves to propel the story forward at a lively pace.
Just as nutritional health is served by the work of the brave harvesters of the sea, societal health benefits when those with the gold don’t get to make all the rules. While our system of governance remains a work in progress, the examples of Maggie and Ray show the time-tested wisdom of treating their respective crews as they themselves would wish to be treated.
As it is said of the unsinkable Maggie, she always “did her best to embrace them all.”
History News Network
What Was Life Like in a 19th Century Fishing Village in Massachusetts?
A review of Georges Bank and author interview by Robin Lindley