Review: “Shipwreck of Hopes”

“Shipwreck of Hopes”

By Angela Reich

Historical Fiction

Author, educator, and researcher Angela Reich combines her love of history and the sea to bring readers the imagined Hannah Oaks of Fire Island, and Margaret Fuller, prominent 19th century writer, into a work of historical fiction. Setting her story against the isolated beaches of Fire Island, and by turns the streets of Rome, the author serves up a compelling tale of two very different women on opposite sides of the Atlantic who come together in a surprising and poignant way.

Reich has done her research, and by contrasting the isolated beaches of Fire Island and “the peoples who came and went,” with the bustling commercial town of Patchogue just across the bay, she gives the reader a feel for what it was like for Hannah to live there in the mid-1800s.

There is some lovely writing in the book. Here is Reich describing the island’s sea life: “Blues and bass abundant nearly bounding into his boat as if in some mystical spirit of cooperation.” And Margaret seeing St. Peters Basilica for the first time, “Great fluted and cabled pilasters … angels and cherubs soared among the slants of light … the sun’s beams seemed sent as if from heaven itself.”

Carefully drawn and instantly unlikable is Hannah’s husband, Smith Oaks. Fisherman and sportsman’s guide, schemer and worse, “unwashed from his day’s labors,” he sets to his dinner and wolfs it down. Hannah’s efforts at conversation are answered with, “Can’t ya jes” shut up a minute … I’m doin’ the talkin.”

Shy by nature, Hannah is mouse-quiet when Oaks is around. She fears riling him and keeps his secrets. Harboring a shame of her own – a stillborn birth before she married him – Hannah goes about her marriage more a servant, than a wife.

In sharp relief to the uneducated Hannah is the intellectual Margaret Fuller, sent to Rome by the New York Tribune to report on the Italian Revolution of 1848. There she updates her readership on the intrigues and deceptions inside the Catholic Church, the revolutionaries who want lower taxes and more opportunities for the working class. Past 30, she finds her first lover, Giovanni, 10 years her junior – you go girl! – who turns out to be of noble birth and himself a rebel.

Jump cut to Fire Island where danger and intrigue also lurk. A fatal accident here, a mysterious death there, is it Oaks? Townsfolk wonder. He knows the island’s waters, the wreckage of its ships, its treasures buried within. Hannah confronts him, but he grabs for her throat and threatens true harm, and suggests she returns to her sewing. She has more

than her own safety to consider; there’s Marietta, their daughter, and Hannah’s one consolation in an otherwise drab and fearful existence. Italy again. Word gets to Margaret there’s a contract out on Giovanni, and it’s not for an extension on his villa. Arriverderci Roma, they book a trip on the freighter “Elizabeth” and set sail for the Long Island harbor.

A docent at the Fire Island Lighthouse, Reich deftly works its lighthouse lore into the ill-fated ship, “Elizabeth.” Smallpox kills the captain, his body wrapped for an at-sea burial. A scene of high drama follows a storm flinging the ship into the roiling waves. Stuck on a sandbar, passengers wait in vain for rescue.

A student of both history and human nature, Reich notably cites the townsmen who quickly profit from the wreck – the local privateers are charged later on – its cargo of finery sold openly, brazenly on the streets. The imagery is rich as housewives appear in silks fit for aristocrats, a man, never seen wearing one hat, brags a pile of six upon his head.

No spoilers here. I won’t tell how it happens, but Hannah and Margaret’s lives connect in the final chapters, as does the showdown between Hannah and Oaks.

For me, Hannah’s burst of confidence, her strike to have some say in her life come all of a sudden. I would have liked her to show some gumption over the course of the book, to cheer her on rather than feeling sorry for her.

But this is a small complaint in a story that ties a revolution, a shipwreck, Long Island and Italy, a nasty villain and two women who have seemingly nothing in common, into a well thought out and engagingly-written first novel.