A new book by a UNC-Wilmington Creative Writing professor weaves a mystery inside past and present conflicts as viewed by the state’s Outer Banks. George Olsen has more.
Call it the “spoonful of sugar” approach to writing… buy it for the mystery, love it for the history.
“Roaming the island, talking to people, reading the lore of the island while I was there I really got caught up in the idea that it is kind of the easternmost part of the U-S, at least on the Atlantic Seaboard, and it’s in a very precarious position in terms of weather, in terms of being vulnerable to attack during the wars when the shipping lanes pass so close off the lighthouse, using it as a beacon to go both north and south and also to go out using the Gulf Stream to get across the ocean. I guess I came by it naturally, just observing the war and thinking about the idea of an isolated community that is suddenly invaded by a gigantic global force.”
Philip Gerard, part of the Creative Writing department at UNC-Wilmington and author of “The Dark of the Island”, set on Hatteras Island, the second of his fiction novels set on the secluded island. But while fictional… an oil company employee comes to the island as part of a team investigating the possibility of an game-changing oil deposit off the Outer Banks and survives multiple accidents… or were they… the book spends much of its time flashing back to a period just before-and-during World War II, both action overseas and the Outer Banks unique attachment to the war, with U-Boat attacks on merchant ships offshore and rumors of those same U-Boats depositing agents on our shores as saboteurs.
“There are some people here I’ve talked to, people like Hannah Block who is kind of like the grande dame of the arts here who actually was a life guard on our coast during the war and remembers seeing strange men dressed in uniforms that didn’t belong and coming to the local clubs and how the shore patrols would routinely round them up and take them away and, there are all kinds of stories of fishermen encountering U-boats that surfaced and wanted to barter for food or forsupplies of some kind. I think the whole coast is kind of rife with that. The coast here goes back to the days of smuggling and piracy so there’s always been skullduggery of one kind or the other happening.”
Much of a skullduggerous nature occurs in “The Dark of the Island.” The book shifts between the World War II era and the book’s present day early 1990s. The young oil man Nick Wolfe had a grandfather who died in the war under mysterious circumstances. He no sooner sets foot on the island when he has his first brush with death. And many of the people he encounters on Hatteras seem to know something of him, though he has never visited this corner of the world in a job that takes him to many. The people he meets all have direct ties to World War II, through family members or direct service. Gerard used his own ties to World War II… interviews with veterans about the war, including his father … to bring authenticity to the stories of his book’s veteran characters.
“One of the characters comes home, takes off his uniform and leaves it under a bench at a bus station in Philadelphia, never wants to see it again. That’s actually a story told to me by one of the veterans I interviewed for another project. It becomes just so sick of the war and the military, so traumatized by it all, that he simply went into a bathroom at a bus station, changed into civilian clothes and left everything behind and then went home, as if he could simply take off the war like taking off a suit of clothes.”
And his past research also informs the war scenes from The Dark of the Island. In this scene Hatteras native Tim Dant is now a Navy corpsman landing with the Marines in Tarawa in 1943, a battle that saw nearly 1000 American and as many as 4700 Japanese deaths as the United States went on the offensive in the central Pacific.
reads from Page 146
“When you’re writing anything that’s extremely violent or emotional one of the things you want to try to do is let the action carry the emotion and not ramp it up too much with the words, so you really have to try to restrain yourself and tie up that impulse to use very lurid language. And in fact if you read the accounts of the men who survived those battles and wrote about them, you find the kind of matter of fact after action reports but you also then find things much more introspective and much more lyrical written by those guys who survived that crawled up the beaches. So whenever there’s a historical event in the novel I’m trying to present it as accurately as I can from what the record is and to kind of put my character right in the middle of it.”
But the plot of “The Dark of the Island” isn’t only tied to events around World War II. It also highlights modern day tensions that exist along the North Carolina coast, a tension between tradition and the tourist trade, as well as a tension between the tourist trade and a push by some to allow energy exploration in Atlantic waters.
“One of the characters is talking about the great tradition of the island which has always been two things… one is rescue, the lifesavers who go out and get stranded sailors off their ships and second is fishing, which is feeding people. Those are two very honorable things on which the traditions and legacy of the island is based. The discussion comes up in the context of the fact that that culture is fading or being overshadowed by a culture of development and tourism and now perhaps drilling for oil, and that is eclipsing something that gave the island a very solid moral center.”
Tensions between tourism and tradition remain a fact of life along the state’s coast, but tensions over possible drilling off the coast recently eased… or intensified, depending on your position… when President Obama reversed a proposal that could have opened areas 50 miles off the Atlantic Coast to drilling. That effected possible leases from 2017 to 2022. So one apparently timely topic highlighted in the book faded in the time between the book going to press and the book appearing in stores. But Gerard’s experience talking war with veterans … whether those who inspired sections of “The Dark of the Island” or not… makes it apparent that no matter what the fight, there is no war to end all wars.
“I’ve interviewed a lot of WWII veterans over various writing projects and what happened is you learn that all the things we think of as being new, like post-traumatic stress disorder or the ambiguity of the Vietnam War, not knowing who your enemy was, all those things were true in WWII and I suspect true for all wars.”
“The Dark of the Island” by Philip Gerard is published by John F. Blair. I’m George Olsen.