Shipwreck, survival and faith all in one novel
Novels that touch on faith and God have long intrigued me.
Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited,” Anne Tyler’s “Saint Maybe,” Sigrid Undset’s “Kristin Lavransdatter,” Rummer Godden’s “In This House of Brede,” Mark Helprin’s “A Soldier of the Great War”: these and other stories I’ve read over the last 40 years or so feature men and women discussing God, pondering the ramifications of faith, and wondering whether an all-powerful deity exists.
And even in in those novels in which an Almighty is only a background actor on the stage, such as in “A Soldier of the Great War,” that presence still reveals much about the characters and about the human condition in general. In my entire life, I’ve only known one person who had apparently never pondered God’s existence. He was neither a believer nor an atheist — he didn’t even qualify as an agnostic — but was a practical Midwesterner who seemed to have simply lived his life without spiritual wonderment.
Sometimes fiction operate like that friend. I consider Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” one of the great American novels. I’ve read this saga of the Old West, have revisited many parts of the story, and twice watched the miniseries based on that novel, but I’m always struck by the near absence of religion in that glorious tale. Given that its nineteenth century setting, “Lonesome Dove” takes place at a time when religion, Christianity in particular, was a driving force in the lives of many and at least a peripheral concern for others. Yet thoughts of God are far away from all these cowboys.
The opposite holds true in Mitch Albom’s “The Stranger in the Lifeboat” (Harper, 2021, 140 pages). A multi-million dollar yacht, the Galaxy, carrying wealthy and famous passengers seemingly explodes on the last day of its voyage. Ten people, again seemingly, escape immediate death on a lifeboat. This crew of survivors includes a little girl, Alice, who won’t speak and whom none of the others recognize from the yacht, and a stranger, “maybe twenty years old, and his eyes were pale blue,” who swims to the raft out of nowhere. We meet this man here:
Nevin yelled, “HOW LONG WERE YOU IN THE WATER?” perhaps thinking a raised voice would snap him to his senses. When he didn’t answer, Nina touched his shoulder and said, “Well, thank the Lord we found you.”
Which is when the man finally spoke.
“I am the Lord,” he whispered.
As the story progresses, various newscasters report this sinking, offering their viewers — and we the readers — insights into the lives of the rich and the powerful assumed lost at sea. Later, when an empty lifeboat bearing the name Galaxy washes up on the island of Montserrat, police inspector Jerry LeFleur digs into the story of what actually happened to those that may have once clung to this boat for survival. He is a man who has lost his belief in God after his 4-year-old daughter is drowned, leaving him living with his wife, a woman of faith, but estranged from her and everyone else in his life.
We hear much of this story from Benji, a deck hand on the yacht who made it to the lifeboat. He possesses a notebook in which he writes an account of what is happening to Annabelle, the love of his life.
“The Stranger in the Lifeboat” contains nuggets of wisdom. Here, for example, is part of a conversation between Benji and Alice near the end of the story.
“Why did my wife have to die?”
She nodded as if this were expected. She placed her other hand on top of my palm.
“When someone passes, Benjamin, people always ask, ‘Why did God take them?’ A better question would be, ‘Why did God give them to us?’ What did we do to deserve their love, their joy, the sweet moments we shared? Didn’t you have such moments with Annabelle?”
“Every day,” I rasped.
“Those moments are a gift ….”
One warning to readers: Benjie is an unreliable narrator. Whether he is in a delirium while recording events in his journal is unclear, and truth is up for grabs until the end of the story. Even now, having finished the book, I’m unclear as to whether some of the incidents actually took place or are figments of Benji’s imagination and unbalanced mental state. Moreover, some events he recounts, the ones we can be reasonably certain did occur, seem unlikely to this reader. To offer more details would spoil the plot.
Albom ends his story with this paragraph:
In the end, there is the sea and the land and the news that happens between them. To spread the news, we tell each other stories. Sometimes the stories are about survival. And sometimes those stories, like the presence of the Lord, are hard to believe. Unless believing is what makes them true.
Perhaps his use of murky details and the fevered telling of “The Stranger in the Lifeboat” is Albom’s attempt to get us to suspend our disbelief, and as Benji did, to take a leap of faith.