Book Review: The Whiskey Sea

The Whiskey Sea

Creel, Ann Howard

Lake Union Publishing, 2016

An Amazon book of the month choice,  The Whiskey Sea centers on a fishing community outside of New York City in the lead-up to prohibition.  When the prostitute living near the harbor dies, she leaves behind 2 small daughters; the oldest just 4 years old.  The harbormaster takes it upon himself to find a home for these two, and they end up with a bachelor fisherman by the name of Silver.  He takes them as his own and brings them up, with both of them graduating high school – an accomplishment in that time and place.

Frieda, the oldest, has long gone out fishing and clamming with Silver and assumes that she’ll eventually take over his boat as happens in most fishing families.  Silver has other ideas, though, and tries to set her up with a slightly older local man who came back from World War One and wants to get a boat and be a fisherman, so he sells him the boat and arranges for the two to meet.  It doesn’t go well – Frieda has no interest in settling down as a fisherman’s wife, and Silver has already shaken on the boat sale.

After a period of not knowing what to do, Frieda decides she wants to keep being around boats and maybe end up with one, so she reaches an agreement with “her” boat’s new owner to teach her how to work on engines, a skill he learned during the war.  She soon becomes the top mechanic in the area, and the local boats provide her with a reasonable income… but she still wants to be on the water.

With prohibition comes a very lucrative side industry – rum running.  Once the fishermen figure out how the game is played, many of them head offshore after dark, trade rolls of cash for cases of liquor from the alcohol laden freighters anchored just inside international waters, come back and in turn sell it in darkened coves to land-based middlemen. To carry more cargo or to have a chance at outrunning police and coast guard vessels, many of the runners come to Frieda to get their engines tuned up or replaced with more powerful ones. Soon some of the old fishing boats give way to more purpose built vessels, and one day the captain of the newest one in the harbor asks Frieda to join his crew and be responsible for the engines during the runs. After some initial hesitation she accepts as it will get her back out on the water and, like everyone else in the town, there are always places for the sudden increase in income to go to.

So begins her life as a runner.  Which wouldn’t be much of a story, except that the captain also needs another person on his crew to help with loading and unloading the cargo, and he selects a relative stranger who is in town for the summer.  He is, as it turns out, a wealthy Harvard student on his summer holiday in search of something more engaging than sitting with his parents at sea-side country clubs, but aside from a more polished wardrobe and demeanor he soon becomes a valued member of the 4 person crew.  He and Frieda fall into a relationship, which he advances far beyond what is common and customary in that area, and Frieda finds herself suddenly experiencing the ups and downs of a relationship against the backdrop of her foster-father having a stroke, her younger sister choosing to move to the city, and the intoxicating mix of adrenaline and money coming in from the liquor trade.

As the law enforcement efforts step up and organized crime starts to become involved, many of the smaller players opt to get out of the business and go back to fishing, but for the larger boats the returns are still worth the risk and the investments they’ve put in their boats still need repaid.  With every successful run the feeling of invincibility grows, until a mysterious boat shows up in their wake and changes the equation forever, and leads Freida to grapple with the lingering fallout of the events of that night.

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