As it is flagged in the prologue it’s not giving the game away to say that the main event in the story is the rescue by a small Irish boat of 168 German sailors during World War II.
The narrator is Jack Roche, a 14-year-old Wexford lad whose father has been killed at sea forcing Jack to take on the bread-winning role for his mother and younger siblings. Before he goes he falls in love with a local girl.
There is a rich cast of characters from Captain down to Jack himself who is taken on as pot-boy based on the lie that he is 16 and while there are women in the shadows of the stories this is very much a study of the male world of work on board the Kerlogue.
You can smell the salt in Bolger’s descriptions of the old seadogs carrying their lives over the ocean waves and imparting morsels of wisdom on the way — “Never play cards with a Flash Harry who can blow smoke rings.”
There is a precociousness to our narrator as he flexes his muscles and sets about becoming a man of the sea.
An evocative but rather long passage at the centre of the book centres on Jack’s adventures on shore-leave in Lisbon, resisting the temptations of a Portuguese girl in favour of his new-found love in Wexford.
In so far as it evokes the tensions and suspicions that abounded on mainland Europe during the war it is an interesting section but is a long digression for what is really only a curtain raiser to the main event.
The book finds its legs more at sea than on land.
Based on an actual event where the stricken German sailors were rescued from the sea and taken to Ireland to see out the war, it is clearly more a labour of love than an act of research for Bolger, whose own father spent his life at sea.
Not alone does the author’s respect for the characters of the story shine through but so too does his love for them. Bolger’s sense of the workmanlike heroism of these tough men is infectious.
Rows and bristling encounters between the crewmen are described but underlying them is a deep sense of mutual respect between the parties.
That respect extends to the feelings between the rescued Germans and the Wexford sailors as we are reminded that once they were all lost at sea the markings on the uniforms ceased to be relevant and only their humanity mattered.
Kind-heartedness is the calling card of this heroic story.
There are times where a tough and sustained moral conflict wound enliven the ingredients of what is an undoubtedly strong story but Bolger’s tendency is to resolve matters too quickly with mutual respect always coming to the fore.
For instance, Jack’s dad was killed by a German torpedo and we are told throughout the book that he is full of hatred for every Nazi but even before the rescue of the Germans by the Kerlogue commences he says, “I couldn’t bring myself to hate these pathetic wretches struggling to survive amid the waves,” and with it the drama of the situation ebbs away before an examination of the moral crux even begins.
That said it is an old-fashioned heroic yarn told with spirit and compassion and stoutly made like the characters aboard the voyage.