Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Review - The Mathews Men by William Geroux

It's been ages since I've done a book review but I think this one is worth the time. Earlier this year my wife sent me a few emails about events at the local bookstore. I attended a few of these as they related to history and my new profession at the museum. But in all honesty, they were a bit of a bust. The hour and a half on the road to and from the bookstore wasn't really worth it. Sure, the books looked interesting but most had nothing to do with my either my job or something that interested me.

Despite this, I continued to go to those that at least sounded interesting. I've been a fan of history for a long time and I felt I owed it to the authors that came to the store to at least browse their wares. I'm glad I kept going because I finally stumbled onto a book that was not only an educational read but was also entertaining.

And maybe a bit gruesome.

The Mathews Men by William Geroux starts with a fisherman gutting a shark and finding body parts. And a ring. The ring belonged to a mariner from Mathews County, Virginia. The state of Virginia has four main peninsulas; the Northern Neck, the Middle Peninsula, and the Virginia Peninsula (sometimes just called "The Peninsula"). The fourth peninsula is the Eastern Shore, located between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. I live in the Northern Neck between the Potomac River and the Rappahannock River. Mathews County is all the way at the end of the Middle Peninsula between the Rappahannock River and York River at the edge of the Chesapeake Bay.

Being so close to water, Mathews County has quite the maritime history. How that history played out during WWII, along with the proximity to where I live, is what struck me as interesting enough to buy the book. When I met Mr. Geroux at the bookstore, I was lucky enough to be the only one there. So he gave me a one-on-one summary of the book. While he talked, I could tell that he was a great storyteller and the kind of guy you'd like to sit down to dinner with. I may have also felt some sympathy for him as I was the only one to show up at the event. Small-time, struggling, or new authors will always have a spot in my heart.

I'll be honest, when I started the book, the shark part was a bit gross. But I pressed on. There were maps. And more maps. And photos. And more photos. And notes. And more notes. And by the time I was into the second chapter, I was hooked. Kind of like that shark.

Geroux's writing style was a bit choppy at times but I adapted to it once I saw the pattern. He would essentially tell the story of the many Mathews men in chronological order but would often revisit where they were or what ship they were on later. This served as a good reminder but I think most of the time we saw the same people in other spots was simply because there were so many people from this one county that they seemed to be everywhere.

The two most educational parts of the story were the Merchant Marines and the U-boats. I knew about the Merchant Marine but I, like many others I'm sure, never realized how many of them lost their lives during WWII in combat. And I never realized how little, if any, wartime benefits they saw despite being killed in combat. They were civilians but risked their lives just as much as any soldier on the battlefield. As for the U-boats, I had heard they came close to the east coast of the United States, but I never knew how close. To think that the U-boats could see the lights off Cape Hatteras or the Ferris Wheel at Coney Island is a little scary, even today.

As I finished the book last night, I didn't expect to revisit it so soon today. As I sat researching my own little history project, I sifted through photos my parents took in 1975. I could see a few sights I recognized and a lot that I had no idea where they were. Hawaii was pretty obvious. So was the House of Yesterday. I had heard stories about the trips but never got a lot of details. Which meant I had to do research on my own.

And that's where U-505 circles back around and surprises me. In some of the photos from 1975, I found a steam locomotive and a submarine. While researching the locomotive, I discovered it was located in Chicago at a local museum. Something clicked in my head and I remembered reading just last night that U-505 was also at a museum in Chicago. Sure enough, a little sleuthing later and I finally identify it.

The little story has nothing to do with the book, but it was an odd connection that happened by chance. It also lit the fire under me to write a review. After all, I have a soft spot for new authors, especially when they write good books.

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