Friday, October 23, 2009

Review: In the Wake of the Boatman by Jonathon Scott Fuqua

Alone in the gray living room of their clapboard rental, their four-year-old daughter asleep in bed, Carl's thoughts crudely took him off guard. On this oppressive Norfolk evening, the notion came to him so calmly it almost made sense. He should crack his little boy's neck as gently as possible. It would be like saving two lives. [pg 1]

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.

Rating: * (Very Good +)

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.


  1. I must say that the title of the book did not capture my attention - but the quote you used to begin this post immediately hooked me.

    I love a character driven novel and this sounds like a great choice. It will definitely be put on the TBR pile.

    Lovely review!

  2. Sounds powerful from page 1. This sounds like a book I would enjoy reading and discussing with my book club to get their thoughts, opinions, and insights. Thanks for the great review.

  3. I love books that are so intense I find myself talking to characters in them. This sounds so good!

  4. Molly - Isn't that a great quote? There were a few others in this one I noted in my reading journal. I never think to post them with my reviews. I don't know why. Maybe because with this one, it's more personal and I'm not sure anyone else would get out of them what I did.

    I hope you do enjoy this one if you do decide to read it.

    Kathleen - Thank you! It is such an engaging and moving book. It's definitely one worthy of book club discussion.

    Kathy - Haha! I know what you mean. I definitely talked to this book a lot. :-)

  5. This may be a stupid question, but why does it say "Owen Coffin" on the cover and not the author's name? I've seen on half the covers that name as opposed to the author's own... is there any explanation for that? It seems a bit bizarre.

  6. This sounds like a very deep book! And that excerpt! Wow! Powerful!

    You've got me intrigued, now, and if I see it at the library, I'll have to pick it up.

  7. I received this book to review, I have not read it yet but am glad you like it.

  8. What a wonderful review, Wendy! The book really resonated with you, and you've conveyed that in your review. I will look for this one.

  9. This is my first sighting of this book. It sounds interesting.

  10. I might need to find out a little more about this one, but your review is certainly making it sound intriguing.

    You did have quite a week for books that were very affecting, Wendy!

  11. Anon Child - Maybe it's a reference to the Owen Coffin that Nantucket Sleighride was dedicated to. It fits the boating theme at least. It could be he considered using a pseudonym. I really don't know though.

    Linda - There definitely was a lot to it. I hope your library has a copy so you can read it. :-)

    Sylvie - I hope you will like it when you get to it, Sylvie!

    Jenclair - Thanks! The relationship issues in this one really stood out for me. I had a hard time finding a balance between what to disclose and what to write about. So, I wasn't sure how it would come across in the end.

    Joy - I thought it was really interesting. I definitely want to look into the author's other books.

    Florinda - There's a lot to this book. I probably should have linked some of the other reviews, but I was too lazy.

    I do seem to be on a roll when it comes to choosing books to read that touch me personally. This entire year has been kind of like that.

  12. Great review, Wendy!
    I don't think I'd be interested in the book at first glance but now I'm intrigued after reading your review. :)

  13. Melody - Thank you. I think you might like this one if you give it a try!

  14. Hi Wendy, this one sounds like a book I'd read. That quote you've mentioned was really good. Thanks for the review!

  15. Alice - I thought that quote was rather striking as well. I hope you do get a chance to read this one, Alice!

  16. An Anonymous Child--Hi, I'm Harrison. I'm an editor at Bancroft Press, which published this novel, so I can answer your question.

    The novel was originally going to be published under that pseudonym, and fortunately, Jonathon Scott Fuqua ultimately decided otherwise.

    Despite repeated e-mails to, they do not seem willing to change the book cover image, and I don't know why that is. It's frustrating, but as long as people continue to discover this brilliant novel, all is well.

  17. Wendy, I'm glad you liked this book so much. I mentioned earlier I recently bought this book so now I'm really looking forward to it. Great review.

  18. Glad to hear you enjoyed this one so much. I have a copy of it and am hoping to get to it soon.

  19. I missed this one probably because I didn't pay attention to the title. Not catchy enough. But your review has changed my impression of it. I will seek the book out and what do I have to lose? It's 4.5/5! :)

  20. Harrison - Thank you for the clarification! Hopefully Amazon will get around to changing the cover soon.

    Diane & Melissa - Thank you. I can't wait to read your thoughts on it.

    Matt - In my mind, the title is a bit misleading. I hope you will enjoy it if you read it!

    Lisa - It really is! I hope you will read it if you get the chance.


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