I just finished a novel that is set, in part, in my home town, only in the late 1800s.
I had not realized that it would be set here in Lewes when I pulled Tunnell's Boys off the library shelf. I just did what I always do, I wandered along the New Books shelf and, judging them entirely by their covers, picked two to bring home and read. That approach usually works just fine.
Tunnell's Boys is a historical novel by Tony Junker, a Philadelphia architect and sailor. It tells the story of two young men who meet as apprentice Delaware River and Bay Pilots. It is set partly in Philadelphia, partly in Lewes, and partly on the Delaware River and Bay and on the Atlantic Ocean.
The sail and steam-powered boating in the book is very well told. Mr. Junker knows his boats and the moods of deep and shallow waters. It works just fine as a sea-going adventure.
Thematically, this book is about war and responsibility and the duties of men and women in the world. Mr. Junker is a Quaker, and uses his story to examine some of the larger issues of life from the perspective of Quaker practice. The story turns on the US war with Spain over Cuba. It holds some parallels for our foreign policy predicament of today.
What fascinated me, though, was to read a novel set in Lewes, Delaware. I don't know our history quite well enough to know how much license Mr. Junker may have taken, but I know enough to say that he has painted a plausible past for the First Town.
Much of the action takes place on the waters of the Bay. The characters live and work on a schooner that anchors behind the breakwater off Lewes. They discuss the need for a second breakwater, to expand the anchorage. This would be built eventually. The old Cape Henlopen Lighthouse is there on the dunes, but a major storm erodes away the sand at the base, and characters worry that it may soon slide away. I recognized street names and places. It felt right; it felt like Lewes in the days of sail.
I do wonder about Mr. Junker's addition of a brothel, run and staffed by Cuban emigres, to 19th-century Lewes. I am not sure whether that might be accurate or not, and I'm not sure who to ask. Should I go up to one of the elderly ladies of the Lewes Historical Society and ask? I suppose they might surprise me.
I also found myself thinking of local "coastal conservative" Jud Bennett as I read this book. Jud is now working his way up in politics, and blogging. But he was once a Delaware River and Bay Pilot. I could see Jud, a big guy, bushy-bearded and commanding, climbing onto the deck of a three-masted ship and piloting her up from Lewes the Philadelphia.
In fact, I used Jud's face in my internal movie for one of the characters in the book.
I had thought to read another sea-story, fun and salty but nothing special. Instead, I found a sort of history machine, taking me back in my town's time.