Rugged Water / Joseph C. Lincoln. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1924

My book was published by A.L. Burt, with the copyright was held by D. Appleton and Co., and by Curtis Publishing, but there was an Appleton edition also.

This is the most dramatic of the several Lincoln books I've read so far. The setting is the Setuckit Station of the U.S. Life-Saving Service in Orham, a small Cape Cod town on the Outer Beach. Lincoln deliberately jumbled the town names, so he could have a freer hand with the geography of his yarns, but Orham is certainly meant to evoke Orleans and/or Chatham. The time is late 19th or early 20th century—there are rare telephones, there are trains but no cars, there is a mix of steam and sailing ships (nearly all the sail ships are schooners), and the Life-Saving Service hadn't been merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to become the Coast Guard (which was in 1915).

Calvin Homer is the hero - a young, ambitious and very capable First Surfman at the Station. The crew consists of a captain and several surfmen, so the First Surfman is the second in command. The long-time captain is retiring, and Cal is a likely replacement. He commands a daring rescue during a December storm, which would normally have clinched his appointment. But, during the same storm, when another Cape crew attempted a rescue, all except one drowned. The survivor, Benoni Bartlett, becomes the subject of countless news stories and editorials, and the politicians feel they must pressure the Life-Saving Service to reward him. That reward is the command of the Setuckit Station. Cal would like to move on to something that pays better, but the area superintendent, Capt. Kellogg, prevails on his sense of duty to stay on awhile.

Bartlett had always had a reputation of being a cranky Bible thumper, but Kellogg knows he's gotten worse since his survival of the rescue attempt, and needs at least a capable First there. The Setuckit crew resents his appointment, and soon sees that he's cracking up. His moods mellow when his daughter Norma visits, and she charms the crew as well, particularly Cal. The main plot of the story is whether Cal will be the next Setuckit captain before Bartlett disgraces the Station by bungling a rescue. And the sub-plot is whether Cal and Norma will get together despite his harpy fiancée and her wacko father.

More than Lincoln's other books (that I've read so far), this is a historical novel, with a strong focus on the details of Life-Saving Service daily routine and on the rescues. There is the usual range of colorful characters, but here they are mostly the crew and some of the wives. Lincoln always has a dim view of the religiously intolerant, life-long Unitarian that he was, and it shows here. He makes pointed criticisms of the interference of the newspapers and politicians in Life-Saving Service internal matters, and making heroes of people that failed instead of those who succeed:

"After all, by crimus, a life-savin' crew's job is to save lives. If the Crooked Hill gang had got their boat to shore with all hands safe and sound 'twould have been somethin' to hurrah about. They didn't, they got upset and drownded, which wa'n't their job at all. Somebody bungled somethin' and all hands paid for it. It's too bad and I'm sorry for 'em, the Lord knows, but just the same the bunglin' was a fact. Did you read that piece about Sup'rintendent Kellogg preachin' what a wonderful critter Bartlett is? Why is he wonderful? 'Cause he was lucky enough to be hove up on the beach and was snaked out the wet by the scruff of his neck. He's a hero, Bartlett is—says so in the paper. Well, why ain't I a hero? I got ashore and nobody else hauled me there neither. I am a hero—I'll bet you on it! Smoke up a piece of glass and look at me through it. No, no, don't risk your eyesight without the glass ; I'm liable to dazzle you."

"[The politicians] had responded, as was their habit, to newspaper sensation, and had not troubled to look into the rights and wrongs of the matter at all."


Odds and ends: reference to bayberries as "bayberry plums" and peculiar equation of hog cranberry with wild cranberry (p139), "a thin pair of canvas shoes of the variety called 'sneakers'" (p366), "onedicated" = uneducated? (p97). The first owner of the book read it several times, from 1927 to 1951, noting the dates inside the cover.

US Life-Saving Service, Ocean City Museum | US Life-Saving Service history | US Life-Saving Service

my Lincoln bibliography, my other book reviews, main page, Cape Cod in 1890, Cape Cod fiction

Written May 2001