Hard Aground evolved first in my head and then in my heart. The events were so compelling I originally intended to write a non-fiction book. However, what moved me most was the heart of the story—the compassion, the humanity, and the heroics of those who lost their lives, those who survived, and those who rescued them.
What drew you to tell the story of the Truxton and Pollux shipwrecks?
As a child, I heard tales of the American warships, the USS Truxtun and the USS Pollux, running aground in Chambers Cove during a February blizzard in 1942. My cousins and I spent many summer afternoons on the barrens above the cove. We youngsters played in the brook while the adults filled flour sacks with cranberries and partridgeberries, enough to last the winter. When the berry picking was done, they made a fire in the gully for a mug-up: raisin buns, bread and molasses, and sugary tea. In the fall, the men roamed the coastline gunning for ducks. But everyone stayed clear in winter. It wasn’t until I was a teenager and Joe Doyle shinnied down the cliff one summer day and scrambled back up with a button in his hand, that I began to wonder about the why and the how of the disaster. The seed was planted; the story stayed with me, dormant in the back of my mind for years, while I wrote other stories. Finally, the urge was too strong—I had to deal with it!
What types of questions did you ask yourself when planning your book? How long did this book take to write?
Hard Aground evolved over a period of twenty years. After the initial draft, it sat in my desk drawer for ten years until I retired from teaching. The most difficult aspect was how to approach the subject, how to rein in the accounts of the shipwrecks and the rescue operation, and write from a perspective that hadn’t already been explored. I also mulled over how make the account less technical and more accessible to a general readership. The first draft consisted of vignettes as a way of setting down on paper the parameters of the story. From there, I rewrote the manuscript in free verse, though a poet I am not! It was a way for me to write spare prose, and some of that style made it into my final draft.
What was your approach to research?
Fortunately, I was able to access an abundance of archival material. The events of the disaster had already been gathered in maritime historical archives, books, newspapers, magazines, a documentary film, and even YouTube. Years ago, Ena [Farrell] (a local woman who was 19 at the time of the shipwreck) sent me a stack of her personal papers which included some of Cassie Brown’s original interview notes with survivors and rescuers. I am grateful to Ena’s son, Rick, for allowing me to use his mother’s photos. Joe Manning’s letter to his cousin in Corbin discussing the Pollux rescue, housed at the Rooms Archives in St. John’s, was also invaluable. The task I set myself was to tell the story through chronicling the lived experiences of relatives, neighbours, and townspeople who were involved in the rescue. To that end, my research involved chats with my ‘hometown sources’ and over several years, email and phone call queries to those same people, who were always most generous.
When writing a story about a real event and real people, how did you decide who was going to tell the story? And how did you find the ‘voice’ of your characters?
I chose to write 9 characters to give different perspectives on the tragic events: 3 from each ship and 3 local people to narrate the rescue efforts. The story began to fall into place. Their voices emerged from their roles in the story. The local characters were the easiest to flesh out. I knew them. Ena, who was 19 at the time, was the town librarian and my Ranger captain when I was growing up! The crew of the Truxtun and Pollux were chosen for their key roles in the events, and I read as much as I could glean about them to find their voices.
Hard Aground is an amalgamation of both non-fiction and historical fiction. Was it difficult to find a balance between the non-fiction and historical fiction elements?
Hard Aground evolved first in my head and then in my heart. The events were so compelling I originally intended to write a non-fiction book. However, what moved me most was the heart of the story—the compassion, the humanity, and the heroics of those who lost their lives, those who survived, and those who rescued them. In the end, I decided to write an amalgam of both: part non-fiction, using documented information about the places, dates, events, and actual people, and part historical fiction, creatively telling the story using crew from the Truxtun and Pollux, and the rescuers from St. Lawrence and Lawn.
What do you hope readers will take away from Hard Aground?
Hard Aground, inspired by true events and real people, is a story of tragedy, of everyday heroism, and of the very best of human nature. While it has been 80 years since the USS Truxtun and the USS Pollux ran aground just a few kilometres along the coast from where I grew up, the event is still commemorated every February 18. In the years since the disaster, many of the surviving American sailors and their families visited St. Lawrence and Lawn and the sites of the shipwrecks. As recently as 2021, 6 sisters from Virginia came to visit the site where their uncle was shipwrecked in 1942. I would like to keep the memory of the survivors and their rescuers alive.
As well, Hard Aground deals with a little-known aspect of World War II in bringing to light not only the largest noncombat disaster in American Navy history, but an overlooked Canadian/American connection during the war years, adding a distinctly North American element to a conflict which was otherwise largely waged in the Pacific and European theatres.