CM . . .
. Volume XVIII Number 4. . . .September 23, 2011
Molly Kool: Captain of the Atlantic. (Stories of Our Past).
Halifax, NS: Nimbus, 2011.
112 pp., pbk, $15.95.
Kool, Molly, 1916-2009.
Women ship captains-New Brunswick-Biography.
Seafaring life-Fundy, Bay of.
Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.
Review by Julie Chychota.
Summer was Molly's favourite time of year, when she could be with her father on the Jean K during the long weeks of vacation. An excellent teacher, Paul Kool instructed the young Molly, and she soon learned everything she needed to know about navigation. As a teenager, Molly became a master at repairing the engine, running the winch, handling the lines, and setting the sails. She could sew canvas, splice rope, and cook. She learned how to steer through treacherous waters without electronic aid, but by compass, watch, tide, and time. "You really had to be able to read the weather pretty well. There was radio, but they weren't very good with the weather, any more than they are today," she chuckled. "We didn't have a barometer, so you learned to read all the signs. It got so my father depended more on me than he did on himself. He said I could smell the weather."
Molly Kool: Captain of the Atlantic is an unusual biography of an unusual woman. In it, Christine Welldon charts a course through the life and times of "the first female sea captain to command a ship in North America" (p. 3). As the author steers readers through the deeps and shallows of Kool's experiences, she takes care to foreground the captain's life story against the political and social milieu in which it was anchored.
Together with an introduction and six chapters, the book's table of contents lists five sections of back matter. The initial chapters mark the prevailing attitudes towards women on ships at a time when "[r]uling the seas was the birthright of men" (p. 7). Next, readers learn of Kool's childhood, education, and leisure pursuits. After that, the chapters detail the training Kool received working side-by-side with her father on his scow, experiences which prepared her to pursue both her mate's licence and her master-mariner's, despite resistance from the governing male establishment. Having traced Kool's transition from a professional and public figure to a personal and private one, the book in its final chapter explores how "A New Generation" has followed in Kool's wake. Buoyed by her example, women like Marta Mulkins and Josée Kurtz have risen through the ranks to command military warships. The book concludes with nine pages of back matter under the following headings: "Acknowledgements"; "Notes," of which there are 11; a "Bibliography" of 18 entries; "Image Credits"; and an "Index."
The author's portrayal of a feisty heroine holds the reader's attention, as do her descriptions of setting. Welldon liberally salts her narrative with direct quotations, most of which originate from archival interviews, the better to impart a sense of Kool's distinctive voice. Yet Welldon also conveys the political and social scene of the first half of the twentieth century in the town of Alma, Kool's birthplace, in the province of New Brunswick, in the country of Canada, and even beyond. To that end, 23 sidebars flood the text with additional information on trailblazing women, maritime heritage, shipping and fishing practices, tides, and ship's anatomy. Welldon's decision to view history through alternating narrow and wide lenses results in a book with a wider-ranging scope of appeal. Readers interested in biography, history, the Atlantic shipping industry, and New Brunswick's archival holdings, for instance, all will find something to suit them.
That said, this book contains its share of curiosities. For example, it is conventional for a biography to introduce its subject's full name and date of birth in its initial pages. Like the very woman whose life it portrays, however, Molly Kool: Captain of the Atlantic presents an exception to the norm. A paragraph on page 15 identifies 1919 as the year Kool was born, although any reader with subtraction skills could calculate Kool's year of birth as 1916 from the information on pages 7 and 14. Still, it is only in the fifth chapter, and then not from the text but from a photograph of a monument to the captain, that a reader discovers she was christened "Myrtle" and born "23rd February 1916" (p. 87).
Furthermore, a few of the chapters end abruptly or disjointedly. For instance, the final two paragraphs of Chapter 2, entitled "Growing Up Female," describe the importance of scowing to New Brunswick's economy, yet do not tie this information back to Kool's life. Chapter 4 discusses Kool's renowned exploits that led to her appearance on Ripley's Believe It or Not as well as the changes World War II brought to the Canadian shipping industry. Suddenly, in its second-last page, it launches into an account about the captain's Greek suitor. A smoother transition to this anecdote could have read something like, "Even her rise to captaincy and Canada's entry into the war did not dampen her romantic prospects." A third example occurs in Chapter 5, where the last sentence reads: "New Brunswick singer-songwriter Ruth Dunfield composed and performed this song at Molly's funeral" (p. 87), punctuated by a colon and followed by the song spread over the next two pages. A better handling of the material would have referenced the songwriter, indicated the song's appearance on the following pages, then summarized the song's significance in another sentence or two to make a complete paragraph.
Technically speaking, there are a few items worth mentioning in passing. First, an erratum label has been pasted inside the front cover to advise, "The text on page 6 should follow the text on page 7." Then, while the text should be commended for the absence of sentence fragments (only two, not counting occurrences in directly reported speech), and for offsetting longer quotations, not all quotations (long or short) are preceded by signal phrases or even accompanied by the correct punctuation to denote a signal phrase. That oversight is cause for concern, as is Molly's recollection of her teacher as "an old tarter" (p. 28) rather than "tartar." If the book is reproducing a misspelling from Molly's own writings, it should include the notation "[sic]" behind the word. Finally, there seem to be no attributions for images on the cover, the front end paper, or the portrait captioned as "An artist's rendition of Captain Kool, age 23" (p. 6). In the larger scheme of things, attention to these particulars would enhance the text, but they do not detract from the theme of Kool as a role model for women entering male-dominated professions.
Physically, Molly Kool: Captain of the Atlantic is an object of beauty. Glossy covers and semi-glossy pages are smooth and sturdy; they will stand up to a bit of wear-and-tear. Moreover, the book is awash in visual imagery. It contains 43 images, a little over half of which are black and white, the rest in color, all accompanied by captions. Of those 43, five are full-page photographs, three are two-page spreads, one is an artist's portrait of Kool, and one is an atlas map of the New Brunswick coastline, pinpointing towns along the Bay of Fundy. The photos depict Kool's birthplace community, tools of the naval trade (e.g., compass, barometer, and life preserver), and the captain, herself, many times surrounded by family and colleagues.
In addition to the functional images, the book's design employs decorative imagery. For example, at three points in the narrative, flourished section breaks signal a shift in topic (p. 40, 43, 86); arguably, the transitions could have been achieved using less artificial means. Of greater importance, each new chapter features a narrow slice of two-color image bordering the far right of the first page; the image derives from a photo of a smiling Kool at the wheel of a ship on page 72. At the bottom left-hand corner of most even pages throughout the book is a two-color reduction of the photo of Kool from the front end paper. At the bottom right-hand corner of most odd pages is a two-color image of the Jean K, the Kools' scow, reduced in size and flipped horizontally from a photo on page 42. Together with these two designs, the book's running footers (page numbers, book's short title, and chapter title) cycle through a spectrum: red, blue, yellow, green, violet, and brown. This lavish attention to visual detail animates the subject matter and compounds the reader's interest in it.
Nimbus Publishing Ltd touts itself as "the premier publisher of books about Atlantic Canada" (http://www.nimbus.ns.ca/). Its publications include biographies of Sidney Crosby and Maud Lewis, cookbooks containing Maritime recipes, and bestsellers with names such as Bluenose Ghosts and Buddy the Bluenose Reindeer. So far, its "Stories of Our Past"series comprises four titles. Rum-Running, the first in the series, has been identified for readers 12 and up, according to the publisher's online catalogue, although age designations are absent for subsequent titles. The category of "12 and up" corresponds with the excerpt above, which scans at a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 6.9, so it probably holds true for the other two books in the series also.
As a woman with an unconventional career in the mid-twentieth century, Molly Kool never set out to make a name for herself or to make a great statement about women's equality with men. Although she was "undeterred by the fact that she was entering a man's domain" (p. 43), she claimed it "‘had nothing to do with women's liberation" but had everything to do with "making a living'" (p. 11). Even if practicality dictated Kool's choice of career, Welldon convincingly contends that the language of the Canada Shipping Act was revised to include—or at least not exclude—women, as a result of Kool's persistence. Welldon records that Kool was fond of saying, "You think I can't do it? Just watch me!" (p. 3). That kind of determination and self-confidence is a welcome legacy for everyone, male or female.
Ottawa's Julie Chychota is a confirmed landlubber but has enjoyed occasional watery excursions in Manitoba and Ontario with the likes of the Paddlewheel Queen, MS Kenora, and Empress of Ottawa.
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