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: A Furious Sky: The Five-Hundred-Year History of America’s Hurricanes
Year published: 2020
Author: Eric Jay Dolin
Synopsis: The almighty hurricane is a fear-inducing, uncontrollable force of nature that wreaks havoc from June through November, changing landscapes, causing billions of dollars of damages, and claiming many lives. In this book, Eric Jay Dolin begins his history of hurricanes as far back as Columbus and the Colonial days, recounting how these storms impacted a people who could not effectively predict or prepare for their arrival and devastating force. Dolin moves through history tracing discoveries and technologies—from breakthroughs made by Benjamin Franklin to advancements made by the National Hurricane Center—that have helped us better understand the source, physical nature, and trajectory of hurricanes, while formulating ways to mitigate their damages. This book is a cautionary tale, however, as our coastlines are still getting battered, and hurricanes only continue to get worse due to climate change. Combining historical facts, science, policy, anecdotal accounts, and intriguing storytelling, Dolin tells a complete story of our multi-century relationship with these great storms.
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.
Title: Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919
Year Published: 2004
Author: Stephen Puleo
Synopsis: This story recounts a surreal historical disaster that took place in 1919 when 2.3 million gallons of molasses poured out of a collapsed 50-foot steel tank onto the Boston waterfront. The wave of molasses that traveled 35 miles per hour ended up claiming 21 people’s lives and destroying countless properties in the North End. From the tales of the dangers and fatalities that surrounded the tank’s construction in 1915, to its collapse and cleanup efforts, to the resulting civil lawsuit that finally concluded in 1925, the author provides moving accounts of the people and families who were impacted by the tank and its demise.
Title: Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston
Year Published: 2018
Author: Nancy Seasholes
Synopsis: Boston has created more land by filling at the water’s edge than nearly any other North American city—in fact, approximately one-sixth of its 5,250-acre area is fill. In Gaining Ground, readers will discover why and how Boston reclaimed so much land, beginning with European settlement in the seventeenth century through to development in the present. The author explores the purposes for filling (such as for port development, public parks, transportation facilities, and the need to cover and bury polluted coves and flats), how projects were financed, the technology and construction processes, and the major developments that shaped this “landmaking.” With maps that illustrate the changing landscape, along with drawings and photographs, the author provides both a historical and visual account. Today’s rising sea levels and projected flooding of many of Boston’s low-lying areas make the history of this gained ground all the more relevant.
Title: In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
Year published: 2000
Author: Nathaniel Philbrick
Synopsis: Most of us have heard of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, but did you know there is a true story that inspired that book? In the Heart of the Sea delves into that heart-wrenching maritime story of the whaleship Essex, which set sail in 1819 from Nantucket to the South Pacific and never returned. Essex was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale, and her 20 crewmen were forced to drift on the open sea in three tiny whaleboats, at the mercy of weather, extreme hunger, and disease. Due to their fear of cannibals, they chose not to head downwind to the Marquesas, but rather upwind a farther distance to South America—an ironic decision, given how some were forced to survive. Ninety days later, a few survivors were rescued as they drifted off the coast of Chile. Not only a tale of survival, this book documents the history of the Quaker whaling industry and life on Nantucket in the 18th and 19th centuries, the big business of whaling in the United States during the Industrial Revolution, and the importance of the sea in creating a local and national identity.
Title: Lone Voyager: The Extraordinary Adventures of Howard Blackburn Hero Fisherman of Gloucester
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. Fun Fact: Up until 2007, the tavern bearing his name—Blackburn Tavern—was a popular establishment on Main Street in Gloucester.
Title: Pirates of New England: Ruthless Raiders and Rotten Renegades
Year Published: 2017
Author: Gail Selinger
Synopsis: Who doesn’t enjoy a tale of villainy on the high seas, especially if it’s true! In this book, Selinger explores the breeding ground of piracy in New England, the reign of marauding and terror, epic maritime heists, and the demise of some very well-known and not so well-known pirates. If you are deeply intrigued, then go beyond New England with Black Flags, Blue Waters by Eric Jay Dolin (published in 2018), which provides a vivid account of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century piracy in the entire Atlantic and beyond.
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: Both Martha and Linda have been known to plan entire parties around a single ingredient.
Title: Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore
Category: Climate Change and Environmental Justice
Year published: 2018
Author: Elizabeth Rush
Synopsis: Though not specific to New England, Rising addresses the transformations that are inevitably taking place along the shores of the United States due to rising seas and climate change. The author provides the current reality of the crisis with a forthright reckoning of American vulnerability among disenfranchised communities who are at a higher risk of flooding and losing homes, habitats, and their sense of community. From the low-lying areas of Louisiana (and their limited access to tools needed for rebuilding) to eroding shorelines and hurting fishing communities in New England, the book explores firsthand testimonials and stories from wildlife biologists, activists, and members of vulnerable communities who are already feeling the effects of climate change. Rising draws attention to the crisis—by giving names and heartfelt stories to abstract statistics—furthering us to live more consciously, find tangible solutions, and face this very complex issue with more empathy.
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.
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 Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783-1860
Year Published: 1921
Author: Samuel Eliot Morison
Synopsis: This book is a comprehensive catalogue of the history of maritime Massachusetts with a focus on ships, maritime enterprise, seaborne commerce, whaling, and fishing. The author embarks on a journey through time and places as ships and seamen struggle and thrive through the rise and fall of seaport trading, the uptick of manufacturing, and changing political environments. The author highlights various historical regions, such as Salem, Newburyport, Cape Cod, and Cape Ann, while walking us through history from the Colonial days to Federalism to just before the Civil War. With precise details, quotes, and references, this book gives a snapshot of the history that made the Massachusetts coastal economy what it is today.
Title: The Outer Beach: A Thousand-Mile Walk on Cape Cod's Atlantic Shore
Year Published: 2017
Author: Robert Finch
Synopsis: As the name implies, Robert Finch has spent over 40 years of his life strolling a cumulative total of 1,000 miles on the outer Cape—from the beaches of Monomoy to the dunes of Provincetown. This book is a compilation of moments, observations, and reflections on the natural history of the Cape in all seasons and in all types of weather. The author provides a range of focus from the smallest of invertebrates and shorebirds to the largest of powerful ocean forces that erode the great coastal banks. Each chapter is devoted to a location within the 40-mile stretch of the outer coast and arranged in chronological order from 1962 to 2016. The author’s perspectives and insights leave you with a better understanding of the beauty and essence of the shore and the inevitability of nature’s routines.
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, 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: The Practical Mariner's Book of Knowledge, 2nd Edition: 460 Sea-Tested Rules of Thumb for Almost Every Boating Situation
Year Published: 2013
Author: John Vigor
Synopsis: If you are looking for a bit of useful sea knowledge, this handy reference book is filled with topics arranged in alphabetical order that will make you the absolute expert in the boating community. Whether you want to discuss the superstitions around albatross, the pros and cons of abandoning ship, how to protect yourself from lightening, the best recipe for a rum punch, or the challenges of weather helm, this book will have you covered. Using his vast experiences to provide a comical perspective on his seafaring know-how, this author’s 460 useful tidbits will prepare you for anything at sea and beyond.
Children and Teens
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! Fun Fact: The Good Night Book Series has an entire collection of Coastal Titles, including Good Night Ocean, Good Night Beach, and Good Night Coast Guard.
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
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.
Title: One Earth: People of Color Protecting Our Planet
Year published: 2020
Author: Anuradha Rao
Synopsis: With a global focus, this book includes 20 short and uplifting biographies of diverse activists who have worked to change the world for the better. The author celebrates the intersection of diversity and the environmental movement by highlighting the contributions made by Indigenous people and people of color. From saving ancient trees in Canada to uncovering racial inequalities in the food system in the United States, their stories prove how people of any age or ethnicity can help protect the planet.