NORTHEAST HARBOR — Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Barbara Walsh spoke on Wednesday, June 26, at the Northeast Harbor Library about her new book, “August Gale: A Father and Daughter’s Journey into the Storm.” She was one of two principal reporters who worked on the Willie Horton Jr. and Massachusetts’ flawed furlough program story at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune in the late 1980s. The paper won the Pulitzer for that series.
“August Gale” takes readers on two heart-rending journeys. One into a deadly Newfoundland hurricane and the lives of schooner fishermen who relied on God and the wind to carry them home to Marystown. The other into a squall stirred by a man with many secrets, a grandfather who remained a mystery until long after his death.
Walsh said, “I had been a journalist for more than 20 years when I saw the movie ‘The Perfect Storm.’ The film really resonated with me because of my love for the sea and my Irish ancestry.
A few years later, I told my dad, ‘I want to write books.’ He said, ‘What kind?’ I told him, ‘Sort like The Perfect Storm.’ He explained that I had a story like that in my family and he began telling me about the 1935 August gale that killed several of our ancestors. He then offered to get in touch with his father’s family, which stunned me. For 50 years my dad had refused to talk about his father, Ambrose Walsh. Ambrose had abandoned my dad, uncle and Nana twice. For much of my life, Ambrose was a taboo topic. That winter evening’s conversation launched a nine-year journey for my father and I, as we researched the storm and the grandfather I never knew.”
Reporting and writing “August Gale” tested Walsh’s ability more than any other story in her career. She had reported on corrupt cops, bad politicians and mothers who lost their children to cancer or car accidents. She had reported on Massachusetts’ killer Willie Horton’s prison furlough escape, a story which affected the1988 presidential election and earned her newspaper a Pulitzer Prize. But she had never written about family.
Walsh found it overwhelming to write about the pain her father had suffered in childhood. But her father reassured her when he said, “It’s OK, I trust you.”
“My father loved the book and he is one of my biggest fans, relentlessly selling ‘August Gale’ at bookstores, the golf course, airports, pizza parlors and even to telemarketers,” Walsh said.
To collect material for “August Gale,” Walsh interviewed dozens of Gloucester, Mass., Newfoundland and Nova Scotia men who had sailed and fished in the early 1900s. She also traveled to Newfoundland three times and spoke to more than 200 people. She talked with Marystown, Newfoundland, historians, and people who had lived in that community when the gale descended. She also interviewed several men and women who lost their fathers in the storm. She talked with a hurricane expert who helped her recreate the 1935 gale.
Several the men who died in the gale were Walsh’s relatives, including her great uncle, Capt. Paddy Walsh, and his three sons.
“Writing ‘August Gale’ helped me to realize that you can conquer your fears,” Walsh said. “As much as I wanted to push my grandfather’s story away, it was a story I had to tell. Fate drew me to this book and it was a huge relief to finish telling this story about my family. In my eyes, my father has never been more courageous than when he decided to share his past with me. He trusted me to tell this story and share it with the world. I cannot imagine a greater gift.”
Walsh is also the author of the children’s book, “Sammy in the Sky,” illustrated by painter Jamie Wyeth.
For information, go to http://barbarawalsh.net/about or email firstname.lastname@example.org.