For hundreds of years the town of Marstal in Denmark stood between land and sea. The boys of Marstal gather to terrorize their teacher and sing their hymns beneath model schooners, knowing that one day they will be sailing on life-size ships like their fathers. The men of Marstal look to the sea – it is more than the way they make their living, it’s their destiny. The women of Marstal say goodbye to husbands, sons, brothers, knowing that many will never return – they will be swallowed by the sea. We, the Drowned tells their stories, spanning over the course of 100 years. The story begins with a sea battle in 1848, as Danish sailors take on German rebels. The Danes suffer horribly, but Laurids Madsen manages to survive the battle thanks to his boots. Not long after, however, he disappears and his son Albert searches the Pacific for years, looking for the facts behind his father’s disappearance. Years later, Albert retires to Marstal and takes a young widow, Klara, and her son Knud Erik under his wing. Klara is determined that Knud Erik should not be a sailor. When Knud Erik defies her wishes, Klara declares war on the town of Marstal and the entire sea.
I don’t normally go in for seafaring literature. I’ve never read Moby Dick and I didn’t care for The Old Man and the Sea at all. But We, the Drowned was really wonderful. It didn’t gloss over the brutality of a naval battle or a life at sea. (Indeed, parts of the book could get quite violent and gory, so be warned. I found that the violence made sense for the story, so it didn’t bother me – but if you’re sensitive to that, it’s something to consider.) The descriptions of Albert’s prophetic dreams before World War I and Knud Erik’s experiences in World War II were heart-wrenching. To my surprise, I found myself glazing over a little bit during the scenes that took place on land, wanting the characters to get back out on the open waters. (Not a lot; the shore scenes were still extremely good.) I can see why this book is considered “an instant classic” in Europe. It’s well-written, fast-moving, emotional and gripping. Highly recommended.
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