After watching Gloucester's sea drama unfold in the blockbuster film "The Perfect Storm," a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer discovered that her family had its own "perfect storm" story — and embarked on a personal and historic voyage of her own.
Barbara Walsh resurrected a story about a grandfather she never met and a deadly 1935 hurricane that killed dozens of schooner fishermen and decimated a small Newfoundland village. Several of those lost at sea were relatives she never knew existed until she was in her 40s.
The author of "August Gale: A Father and Daughter's Journey into the Storm" will give a talk Saturday at the Cape Ann Museum. August gales in the 1800s as well as 1927 and 1935 claimed the lives of many Gloucester fishermen or wrecked their schooners. Walsh's talk here will tie Gloucester, its fishermen, wives and their similar superstitions and fishing culture to Newfoundland's captains and dorymen, she said.
Walsh, who lives in Maine, has worked for newspapers and magazines in Florida, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Ireland.
Her Pulitzer Prize stemmed from a year-long series with The Eagle-Tribune about the case of Willie Horton Jr., a convicted killer from Massachusetts who escaped a controversial furlough program. The convict committed rape and assault after he fled the state. This attention to the flawed Massachusetts prison system, in part, led to the derailment of Michael Dukakis' presidential run.
After watching "The Perfect Storm," released in 2000, Walsh said the story resonated with her as a writer.
"It was a very powerful book and a powerful movie," she said in an interview this week. "I had this overwhelming feeling about the story of these men lost at sea."
When she told her father in a passing comment that she wanted to write a book, capturing a story in a similar vein, she received a reply that changed the course of her life.
"He told me that I have a story like that in my family and he never told that story to anyone," recalled Walsh who grew up thinking her paternal grandfather, Ambrose Walsh, was dead, never knowing he abandoned his family, including her father, Ron Walsh, a former Navy man.
She would learn that her grandfather was alive and living in California with another family, but that was all she knew.
That night of the revelation about her grandfather, her father began to fill in the details about her ancestors. The conversation launched a 10-year odyssey in which this father-daughter team would dig up information about her father's family in Newfoundland — a family neither of them ever knew.
She went to bed dreaming of giant waves and the grandfather she never met.
"Call it fate. I felt like there was a story of the sea out there that I was supposed to tell but I had no idea that I had a story like that in my family, about these men fighting the sea, these fishermen going out in all elements," said Walsh.
Of prime focus would be her father's uncle, Capt. Paddy Walsh, who was among the more than 50 fishermen who died in a storm almost 77 years ago. Like 1991's "Perfect Storm," the 1935 storm also was a collision of a hurricane and another low-pressure area that combined to fuel an even more violent meteorological event.
Walsh interviewed more than 200 people, many who were long-lost relatives in the small Canadian fishing village of Marystown, which has a large Irish population, and a community that today has a population of 5,500. Many of her interviews were with residents in their 80s, with thick accents, and often times, poor hearing. Many have since died. But through her new book, their words shared in their oral histories she documented will live on for posterity and testament to the hardships of fishing, and the struggles of the families left behind.
Of the 300 children in the village at the time, 42 would lose their fathers, said Walsh. "It was like their own natural 9/11."
One woman lost her husband and three sons. Another gave birth to a daughter the night her husband died at sea.
"The town grieved for a long time," Walsh said. "The priest had to go door to door telling people of the deaths of loved ones," she said. "The 50 men were lost on several different schooners. Marystown suffered the worst tragedy."
Capt. Paddy Walsh, skipper of the Annie Anita, had a crew of six men from Marystown, along with his two sons, Frankie, 12, and Jerome, 14. Meanwhile, Paddy's eldest son, James Walsh, was captain of Mary Bernice at the age of 21. He had a crew of four men from Marystown. Again, all were lost.
Among those Walsh interviewed, some were the fishermen who were out in the storm.
"One man was 18 at the time. We asked were the waves like those shown in 'The Perfect Storm' film, and he said yes. The waves were taller than the 60-foot mast," said Walsh. "There were men out there in 15-foot dories. There's not a lot of safe harbors in Newfoundland. They described (the storm) as the devil that danced on the water."
Walsh, who interviewed hurricane experts as part of the research, noted that the storm was so fierce that it had churned up bodies previously lost to sea, one a year earlier in 1934 and one about six months before the storm.
Four days after the August gale, Ambrose Walsh, her estranged grandfather, was sitting on a fishing pier in Brooklyn where he lived at the time after immigrating to the United States.
There was a newspaper swirling around his feet and he picked it up and the headline read 40 Newfoundland fishermen killed and his hero — Capt. Walsh — was among them. The author's own father was born 12 days before the August gale of 1935.
Her book, described as a blend of sea drama and memoir, has received praise from fellow authors.
Kate Braestrup, a New York Times bestselling author of "Here If You Need Me" wrote: "Like 'The Perfect Storm,' Barbara Walsh's book vividly captures the fishermen who fought for their lives in an unforgiving sea. Her quest to redeem and understand her grandfather is a powerful story that will resonate with fathers, daughters and sons. 'August Gale' is a haunting journey that readers will long remember."
On her mother's side, Walsh is of Azorean descent, a heritage steeped in fishing from the Portuguese islands.
When the book event was proposed here, some officials at the Cape Ann Museum thought of Gloucester's 122-foot schooner Adventure, a wooden dory fishing schooner. The vessel, built in 1926 in Essex, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Courtney Richardson, museum director of education and public programs, said bringing these two stories together seemed natural.
"Walsh's story takes place when Adventure was fishing for cod, haddock and halibut in Georges and Browns banks," aid Richardson. "Walsh's journey to learn the truth about her father's family, though not Cape Ann specific, helps us to better understand this place."
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3445, or email@example.com.
If you go
Who and what: Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Barbara Walsh presents "August Gale: A Father and Daughter's Journey into the Storm"
When: Saturday, at 3 p.m.
Where: The Cape Ann Museum is at 27 Pleasant St. in Gloucester.
How much: The program is presented by the Cape Ann Museum in collaboration with Schooner Adventure. This program is free with museum admission. To make a reservation or for more information, call Jeanette Smith at 978-283-0455 x11 or email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the author's website at: http://barbarawalsh.net.
Details: Walsh is available to talk with book clubs or schools via Skype. For more information, she can be contacted at email@example.com.