MARBLEHEAD – From his home office on a quiet street in Marblehead, Eric Jay Dolin has penned the latest of his nonfiction books, “A Furious Sky: The Five-Hundred-Year History of America’s Hurricanes.”
Having hit bookstores the first week in August – hurricane season – the book opens with 51-year-old Christopher Columbus sailing on his fourth trip to the New World in 1502, stopping off the Spanish city of Santo Domingo in Hispaniola (modern day Dominican Republic and Haiti, an island in the Caribbean) on June 29, 1502.
One of his ships was damaged and he needed permission to enter port, but more importantly, “He was convinced a great storm was brewing,” Dolin writes. The governor of Hispaniola, Nicolas de Ovando, refused Columbus’ request as he was persona non grata on the island for many reasons.
Even so, Columbus issued a dire warning to Ovando not to allow a fleet of 28 vessels to leave the island for Spain because of the grave danger posed by a looming storm. But Ovando, “derisively labeling Columbus ‘as prophet and soothsayer,’ ignored him.” So, when an awesome hurricane struck on July 10 with mountainous waves and whipping winds, 24 of the fleet’s vessels sunk along with scores of sailors.
Forbidden to enter port, Columbus’ fleet nevertheless found shelter in a secluded harbor and weathered the hurricane without any loss of life. In the aftermath, Columbus was accused of sorcery and using “magic arts” to exact revenge on Ovando. It was not witchcraft, states Dolin’s book, but “a master mariner’s skill at learning from the natives, reading the signs, and seeking shelter.”
Gripping tales revealing human failings in the midst of danger make “A Furious Sky” an exciting read as it spans the history of America from this nameless first storm until the present. In the process, we are as captivated as when we’re on high alert watching a hurricane’s ominous trajectory on TV while waiting for it to make landfall.
In the telling of the great hurricanes, including Galveston in 1900, Miami in 1926, the Florida Keys Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, Hurricanes Carol and Edna of 1954, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and Category 4 Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in 2017, Dolin weaves a history of meteorological innovation and ingenuity in the understanding and predicting of the destructive beasts that pummel us so ferociously.
“I enjoy writing and telling stories. And that’s why I started writing books – to share the stories that I find most intriguing,” said Dolin, the best-selling author of “Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America,” and many other award-winning books about the natural world.
“You can tell a broader story about the history of America through [personal] stories.”
Each of his books uses the central topic – be it hurricanes, pirates, whaling, the Boston Harbor cleanup, China trade – as narrative backgrounds looking through a particular lens.
“A Furious Sky” depicts stories of heroism like the many ordinary people whose courage in the face of death saved others or, who, like Air Force Pilot Joseph B. Duckworth, flew a single engine plane into a hurricane in 1943 to gather information and prove the strength of his aircraft during World War II.
These stories are interwoven with those of epic failures like that of Admiral William F. Halsey, whose poor decision-making during the war resulted in sunken destroyers, demolished planes, and the deaths of 800 men off the Philippines in the Pacific. Uncertain weather forecasts caused Halsey to “steam into instead of away from typhoons,” Dolin wrote.
There are unforgettable descriptions, including a quote from author Ernest Hemingway about the Labor Day Hurricane on the Florida Keys in 1935. A resident of the region, Hemingway had volunteered to bring food, medicine, and to collect the dead in the storm’s aftermath.
“Saw more dead then I’d seen in one place since the Lower Piave [River in Italy] in June of 1918 … You can’t imagine it, two women naked, tossed up into trees by the water, swollen and stinking … [I] recognize them as the two very nice girls who ran a sandwich place and filling-station three miles from the ferry.”
Dolin credits his wife, Jennifer (Rooks) Dolin, for supporting his dream of becoming a full-time writer. With an undergraduate degree from Brown, a master’s in environmental management from Yale, and a doctorate in environmental policy and planning from MIT, Dolin has held a variety of positions. His last before becoming a full-time writer was as a policy analyst at the National Marine Fisheries Service in Gloucester.
Jennifer was supportive of his desire to change careers, said Dolin, at least in part because her late grandfather, Harry Kemelman, who is best known for his popular series of rabbi mystery novels, also had a dream of becoming an author while engaged in a more reliable but mundane occupation. Among other jobs, Kemelman had run a hardware store in Marblehead for years, “but he was always writing on the side,” said Dolin.
Kemelman and his wife, the late Anne Kemelman, were well-known figures in the Jewish community. Jennifer’s parents, Ruth and George Rooks of Swampscott, are also active in the Jewish community.
Eric, Jennifer, and their two children – Lily, 23, and Harry, 20, – attend Temple Sinai of Marblehead and have visited Israel.
For more on Dolin’s books, visit ericjaydolin.com.