Friday, September 30, 2011
Shipwrecks, Monsters and Mysteries of the Great Lakes by Ed Butts
My fascination with the wrecks of the Great Lakes dates back to the first time I heard Gordon Lightfoot's "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald", an incredibly popular ballad from the 1970s. Over time I read about many of the ships that sank in the lakes and found the stories tragic, heroic, mysterious and always deeply interesting. In his recent title, author Ed Butts does an excellent job of capturing some of the more intriguing accidents on the lakes, dating back to the Speedy which sank in 1804. In succeeding chapters he documents other ships like the Lady Elgin, the Waubuno, the Bannockburn and, of course, the Edmund Fitzgerald. But he also goes past that to write about "creatures of the abyss" and "Bessie" the beast of Lake Erie. (Every lake has a beast it seems.) (Lake Erie, incidentally, covers 9,940 square miles - which is nearly impossible for me to wrap my head around. It is also the shallowest lake.) (Now you are ready for Lake Erie trivia!)
Shipwrecks, Monsters and Mysteries of the Great Lakes has plenty of trivia, like the depth of the Lake Erie, but for such a slim volume (80 pages), it offers a lot more than just that. The design is stellar, with short informative chapters, plenty of black and white pictures (or illustrations) of the ships and a variety of ancillary information (like what happened to sister ships or the histories of nearby towns or lighthouses) is provided in brief highlighted text boxes giving readers a little bit extra.
What I really liked was how Butts asked questions - he provides varying opinions of what caused the wrecks, and tells readers all the specifics about the ships in terms of their design (future engineers will love this). He gives readers heroes and villains, more than a few ghost stories and plenty of things to think about. (No bodies were ever found from the Waubuno which is particularly odd considering where it went down.) As much as Shipwrecks is a straightforward history it also has plenty of human stories contained within it, as well as Bessie who is just a whole other story unto herself.
I found the entire book a treat - the short chapters make it easy to pick up and set aside, all of the ships are interesting on their own and offer a lot of opportunity for further research (there are books written about many of them - the UW Madison library has a recommended list online). It's also an easy readaloud book if younger ship obsessives are eager to learn more. This is just perfect straightforward nonfiction and works for readers over an enormously broad age range. Solid, not flashy, but well worth your time, Shipwrecks, Monsters and Mysteries of the Great Lakes should be considered a literary gem in the best sense. I wish Butts would write a whole series like this title; they would certainly fill a solid niche.