- by Carol Standish
Something in the Water (Down East Books, 301pp, $15.95) is peopled with characters of another age. The deftly delineated social patterns of the close-knit island community, in which the story is set, are certainly a thing of the past. Nostalgia, like a coastal fog, is pervasive. The time is the 1940s. The war is WWII, the immediate menace, German U-boats lurking in the coastal shipping channels and behind the islands. Everyone is on the look-out. There is a rumor of a stranger in town.
Author, Peter Scott has lived or imagined very vividly the intricate web of historical reference that informs and motivates the members of small communities made up of large established families. The novel rests on those references and relationships.
Amos, is the last of a branch of one of the island fishing families. He lives alone among his relative’s empty houses which dot the cove settled by generations. He haphazardly keeps up the buildings, converses with his departed kin and stashes his favorite rum in hidey-holes around the neighborhood. But rum is not Amos’s only secret.
In the tense days of the early part of the war, submarine sightings are frequent but not always taken seriously. The reputation of the individual reporting is always considered. Since Amos has been known to imbibe, his word is received with reservations by the islanders and the Coast Guard. But Maggie, the island school teacher, and teenage grandson, Gus, both know how reliable Amos really is—each for private reasons—and team up to restore his good name—and contribute to the war effort.
The action gets tense when, against all civil defense policy and in the absence of higher authority, the teenager and the schoolteacher take matters into their own hands. Explosives are procured, plans are made and the stealthy U-boat is doomed—we hope.
The story is an odd combination of nostalgia and suspense. Period details like reportage of the actual war news and the brand naming of radio shows and popular foods of the day deepen the authenticity of the tale. But what Scott does best is to subtlety draw the art of living in a long-isolated village where the intimate details of almost everybody’s life is known by almost everybody else, where memories are long and gossip is a subconscious whisper, weighed but seldom acted on. That lost way of life is set in acute contrast through the device of inserting a correspondence between Maggie and a friend who lives in a large mainland city.
Although the author spreads himself a little thin when he introduces the captain and crew of the German U-boat—diluting rather than heightening dramatic tension, Something in the Water is an intriguing read. The panoramic cast of characters, both mainlanders and islander, Mainers and folks from away, remain sympathetic and the mystery sufficiently shrouded to keep you reading to the end.