Whether you are a land lubber or you’ve earned your sea legs, there is no denying the call of the coast. And Massachusetts has an extra dose of coast, a fact clearly observed by an abundance of authors. Called the Bay State for good reason—rocky coasts, sandy beaches, ports, piers, seafood, sea breezes, buoys, and of course, bays—Massachusetts weaves its way into many a maritime tale. So if you are looking to learn some of the secrets of the sea, curious to explore coastal history, or wanting to make your mouth water with some seafood recipes, check out some of the books listed below.
Title: Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World
Year published: 1998
Author: Mark Kurlansky
Synopsis: One may wonder how an entire 304-page book could be written about one single species of fish, but a few pages (or Kindle flips) in, it is clear that Cod is about so much more than the fish itself. From the Vikings to the Basques to the shores of Massachusetts, this humble fish has made fortunes, shaped political alliances, and earned a solid place in world history. (Not to mention the Massachusetts State House!) Sprinkled into the historic narrative, this James Beard Award-winning fish tale details how cod is rife with international intrigue. Full of history, quotes from a range of historical figures, and six centuries of cod recipes, there is something to reel everyone in! Fun Fact: The largest cod caught on record weighed in at 103 pounds and was 5’ tall.
Year published: 1963
Author: Joseph E. Garland
Synopsis: Before there were GPS systems and electronics to broadcast “Mayday!,” fishermen were alone at sea if anything went awry. This is the true story of Howard Blackburn (1859-1932), a Gloucester fisherman, businessman, and world-record setter known as the “the lone voyager.” The book introduces him trawling for halibut in a wooden dory off the coast of Newfoundland when a sudden blizzard separates him and a fellow fisherman from their mother ship. Alone in the Atlantic, they battled towering waves and frozen spray to stay afloat. Sadly, his friend died from exposure—but Blackburn rowed five days straight to get to shore with no food, no water, and his hands literally freezing to the oars. The ordeal cost him his fingers, but he continued to fish and sail, even setting a record which remained unbroken for decades for fastest solo sail across the Atlantic. Up until 2007, the tavern bearing his name—Blackburn Tavern—was a popular establishment on Main Street in Gloucester. Fun Fact: Howard Blackburn was also known as the Fingerless Navigator.
Title: Recipes from a Very Small Island
Year published: 2005
Author: Linda Greenlaw and Martha Greenlaw
Synopsis: Linda Greenlaw, an established fisherman and author of The Hungry Ocean, and her mother, Martha Greenlaw, share their favorite recipes for best preparing your coastal catches. (It’s OK if you “caught” them at the market or grocery store.) There are a number of classic seafood recipes, such as Penobscot Bay Clam Dip, Point Lookout Lobster Salad, Down East Crab Cakes, as well as some more modern takes (Wicked Lobster Rolls!), desserts, and appetizers. Full of photos of the dishes themselves (and stories of seaside life on the small island of Isle au Haut), this is a charming cookbook even if you don’t cook! Fun Fact:Linda learned how to “hem” pants as a child with a stapler.
Title: Shipwrecks of Massachusetts Bay
Year published: 2012
Author: Thomas Hall
Synopsis: The rocky coast and sandy shoals from Cape Ann to Cape Cod have been navigated by a myriad of mariners, and this area still gets a lot of traffic. Over the centuries, however, many a ship has been wrecked, leading to this area being known as one of the Atlantic Ocean’s largest graveyards. Shipwreck author (and longtime diver) Thomas Hall revisits eight of the most devastating recorded wrecks to have taken place in Massachusetts Bay. Lost fortunes, lost lives, lost zoo animals—each shipwreck has a story to tell. Hall sets the stage of the wrecks by explaining what resources and equipment were used at the time, then uses modern insight into ship design, technology, human error, and weather conditions to explain the hows and whys behind these tragedies. Fun Fact: Thomas Hall is a Scituate native and serves as a Trustee for the Scituate Maritime and Mossing Museum (yes, MOSSING!)
Title: Shutter Island
Year published: 2003
Author: Dennis Lehane
Synopsis: Home to a mental hospital in 1954, the fictitious Shutter Island is in the middle of Boston Harbor. A criminally insane murderess has escaped her cell and is loose somewhere on this dark, desolate island. While U.S. Marshals are there to find her, an intense hurricane whips everyone into a fearful frenzy and stirs up all kinds of past island secrets. Fun Facts: Scenes from the movie version were filmed on the very real Spectacle Island (one of the 34 Boston Harbor Islands), and the book’s author, Dennis Lehane, is a Boston native.
Title: The Outermost House
Year published: 1928
Author: Henry Beston
Synopsis: Now considered a Cape Cod classic, dedicated “writer-naturalist” Henry Beston (1988-1968) was 38 years old when he first came to Coast Guard Beach (then known as Eastham beach) in the summer of 1924. The Quincy native was spiritually shaken by his experiences as an ambulance driver in WWI and wanted to find peace and solitude and reconnect to himself and the world. He spent the greater part of two years living on “the Great Beach of Cape Cod,” which led him to conclude, "Nature is part of our humanity, and without some awareness of that divine mystery man ceases to be man." His reflections on life and nature have been available in one form or other since its initial run. In the Introduction penned by Robert Finch in the 1949 edition, he explains the ongoing appeal: “The importance and lasting appeal of The Outermost House, I believe, is its power to remind us how much, in this computer age, we still rely on the earth’s deep, constant rhythms…” Some may find it ironic that it is now available to be read on a computer, but whether you are carefully turning the pages of the original 1928 edition or reading it on an electronic screen (free download available here!), the message and musings of the import role nature plays in all of our lives remains true. Fun Facts: Beston was born Henry Beston Sheahan—Beston being his paternal grandfather’s last name. He was raised speaking English and French, and dropped Sheahan professionally as he felt he identified more with his French side. In 1960, federal officials cited his book as one of the influences behind protecting nature by creating the Cape Cod National Seashore. Renowned author and naturalist Rachel Carson has claimed that Beston is the only author who ever influenced her writing.
Title: The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea
Year published: 1997
Author: Sebastian Junger
Synopsis: Unless you have been living under Plymouth Rock, if you are a resident of the Bay State, you have probably read—or at least heard of—The Perfect Storm (or seen the movie version of the same name). Named thusly by the National Weather Service in October 1991 when three weather systems collided off the coast of Nova Scotia to create a “perfect storm” of such magnitude that 100-foot rogue waves were produced, this “creative non-fiction” account recreates the events experienced by the crew of six who boarded the Gloucester, Massachusetts-based swordfishing boat the Andrea Gail and, tragically, never returned. Important Fact: The Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial honors the thousands of fisherman from Gloucester who have been lost at sea.
Title: Good Night Massachusetts
Year published: 2013
Author: Adam Gamble and Mark Jasper
Synopsis: For kids who wish to travel the Bay State before bedtime, this book takes a coastal journey that includes Boston Light, Mayflower II, Boston Harbor, historic Salem, Cape Cod National Seashore, and more…sweet dreams Bay State babies!
Title: Here Come the Humpbacks
Year published: 2013
Author: April Pulley Sayre
Synopsis: Join a momma humpback whale and her baby calf as they go on their annual roundtrip from the warm azure waters of the Caribbean to their summer feeding grounds off the coast of New England. You will learn how these majestic mammals breathe and sing, and how they got their names. Sayre also explains the various dangers—hungry orcas and giant ships to name a couple—that the humpbacks face during their journey. Fun Fact:Humpback whales can weigh up to 50 tons and the females are slightly larger than the males. The average humpback’s heart weighs around 430 pounds.
Title: Nat, Nat, the Nantucket Cat Goes to the Beach
Year published: 1993
Author: Peter W. Barnes and Cheryl Shaw Barnes
Synopsis: Nat, Nat the Nantucket Cat, lives on an island that is small and flat. Lives on an island in the deep blue sea, and lives so happily. We should all be so lucky! Join this agile tabby as he explores one of Massachusetts’s coastal treasures—Nantucket—from his curious kitty perspective. In addition to having rhymes about Nat’s life and times, the book has a history of Nantucket Island for parents and educators. Fun fact:The tabby cat is the official state cat of Massachusetts! They allegedly were brought over on the original Mayflower to keep the mice from eating grain the Pilgrims stored in the ship’s bow.