In Antebellum New England, a boy born to Irish immigrant parents will grow up to be a whaler without peer, but as he marries and sires a child of his own, dark secrets flow in on the tides. As Scrimshaw moves from Massachusetts to Civil War Virginia and from California to World War I Europe, it lays bare the births and deaths, hopes and dreams, and promises and betrayals of three generations of Americans. Covering over a century in American history, Scrimshaw captures the growing pains of a nation and her people as both move farther from what they know and closer to what they fear.
Here’s an excerpt from the first section of 2013′s Scrimshaw:
Click-clack. Click-clack. Click-clack.
The steadfast iambic rhythm of wheels skittering over steel rails, more like a human heartbeat than the pace of a machine driven by wood and coal, rods and pistons and steam. Some would no doubt argue that the railroad is more akin to the pulse of the United States than its denizens are even aware, with its heart located somewhere around Omaha, the miles and miles of Union and Central Pacific tracks snaking in all directions, carrying passengers and cargo and pumping its collective blood to every corner of the country.
Leaving Iowa behind and chugging through Nebraska signals that your odyssey is nearly halfway finished. You’ve never been this far west in your life, and with every hour you move farther from Massachusetts and everything you’ve ever known, and closer to California and everything you’ve ever feared. You’ve buried questions like How will I find her? and Will she remember me? deep in your subconscious. You don’t want to know the answers, anyway.
So you stare out the glass-paneled windows as the miles roll away, the American Middle West shattering all your previously-held expectations—Iowa wasn’t nearly as flat and featureless as you envisioned, not the perfectly smooth ocean on the calmest and least windy of days. Instead, you bear witness to sweeping, rolling hills, brown and green waves pitching back and forth in the near distance, threatening to toss the train from the rails and drown its passengers in a dizzying sea of swaying cornfields.
It’s been three days since you bid goodbye to New Bedford and the Atlantic Ocean. Three full days of clicking and clacking as you’ve limped the aisles, wondering dutifully where the other passengers were headed, wondering if they pondered your destination, your reason for sliding your last 45 dollars through the window in Council Bluffs for the privilege of riding in the belly of this steam-powered beast another day to Cheyenne, two more to Ogden, and two more after that to San Francisco.
When you awaken after drowsing in your seat, you pat your breast pocket fitfully, ensuring the letter remains safe and sound, close to your heart at all times. You’ve managed to keep the knife a guarded secret, but a few times every day you remove the scrimshaw from your pants pocket and run your weathered fingers and thumbs over the intricate carvings, your carvings, all that remains of the life that the Atlantic swallowed and New Bedford all but forgot. The whale bone remains a token, a talisman (it could be called a good luck charm if it had brought any good fortune whatsoever), something to hold onto through your travels.
You’ve been on a train only once before, back in the summer of ’61, on your way to Philadelphia, mere weeks after enlisting to help cement the blockade and Scott’s Anaconda Plan. The train ride was a novelty then, the fastest way to move troops south to Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia. Now, as you travel deeper and deeper into the thickening American night, you grip the scrimshaw a little tighter, triple-check your pocket for the letter and close your eyes as a deep sigh rattles through your 70-year-old bones.