In the Wake of the Boatman by Jonathon Scott Fuqua
Bancroft Press, 2008
Fiction; 307 pgs
Beginning during World War II and spanning the years through the Vietnam War and well into the seventies, In the Wake of the Boatman by Jonathon Scott Fuqua takes the reader into the life of Puttnam Steward and his family, from his childhood into his adulthood. He is the son of a self-made man, a father who worked hard and expected that others around him should too. Puttnam cannot seem to do anything right in his father’s eyes, try as he might. His mother gets through her days with the help of alcohol. Puttnam goes through life never quite feeling good enough. He is not sure what it is he wants in life. His self-doubts and guilt are compounded by his struggle with his gender-identity. The wrongs he did throughout his life, even as a small child, outweigh the positive in his mind. His accomplishments, such as graduating from the college his father was unable to finish and being a war hero, are lost on him.
In the Wake of the Boatman surprised me. I knew from the description that it was a book I would likely enjoy. I hadn’t realized though how much it would resonant with me on a personal level. I could see myself in both Puttnam and Mary, Puttnam’s older sister.
I most identified with Puttnam. I know what it is like to seek love and approval from someone who is not able to give it and that feeling of never being able to measure up. When it is a parent, it makes it all the more difficult. Puttnam tried for much of his life to make his father proud. Even when he tried to distance himself from his family, not to let his father in, it was impossible to break off completely. The parent/child bond is not easily dismissed. Puttnam is smart and capable. I wanted so much to step into the pages of the book and reassure him.
Puttnam’s sister Mary and his friend Milton are perhaps my two most favorite characters in the novel. Both care about Puttnam and reach out to him in their own ways to try and help him. I like them not just because of the support they offer Puttnam, but also for their own stories. Mary was not a victim to her father’s ill will. She saw what was happening to Puttnam, however, and, in her own way, sought to remedy the mistakes of the past with the choices she made in her own life. Like Puttnam, Milton struggled with the direction his life was meant to take. He joined the service right alongside Puttnam but soon discovered that military life was not for him. His love for nature and birds would eventually guide him to his new career. Even so, Milton had an uphill battle. Mary and Milton are both down to earth characters and anchor Puttnam, keeping him from losing himself completely.
Helen, Puttnam’s mother, turned to alcohol to fill the emptiness in her life. Her life had not quite turned out the way she had hoped it might. Booze numbed her to not only what was going on in her household, but also her own failures and disappointments.
I admit I was not too fond of Carl Steward, father of Puttnam and Mary. I voiced a few choice words about him as I read the novel. He was cold and sometimes cruel to his son, never satisfied with Puttnam and making sure he knew it. I saw in Carl a familiar figure from my own past and that made it all the more personal. It made it harder for me to feel sorry for Carl, even knowing his own upbringing was much like the one he gave his son. Both Carl and his father were hard on their sons who never seemed to live up to their fathers’ expectations. I can’t help but wonder if Carl’s own father had had a similar childhood to the one he gave Carl. Carl was not a heartless man. Just misguided. He always had something to prove, never quite feeling good enough himself. He transferred those expectations and feelings onto his son, Puttnam. Instead of acknowledging his own insecurities, he put them off onto his son.
Carl’s hobby of making boats and his struggle to make one that could float and carry his weight mirrored his own life and his struggles with his son. He did attempt to reach out to his son at times, but his efforts rarely carried the weight they needed and were weak at best.
The characters are fully realized, making them all the more real. I felt Puttnam’s frustration and sadness, his guilt and shame. I could even feel Carl’s internal struggle as he warred with saving face and acknowledging he might be wrong. I have a feeling I will be wondering for awhile to come about where Puttnam would be today if he were a real person.
In the Wake of the Boatman is a study into the human psyche, about how our lives are shaped by our life experiences. Jonathon Scott Fuqua’s novel moved me. In his acknowledgements, he mentioned that he hoped his story would inspire, and I definitely feel that it does; at least it did this reader.
You can learn more about Jonathon Scott Fuqua and his books on his website.
Disclosure: Copy of book provided by publisher for review.
© 2009, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.
If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.