Ernest Poole‘s The Harbor is tied for the most exciting book I’ve read this year (with The Count of Monte Cristo). Written in 1915, The Harbor tells the story of New York’s harbor from the late 19th century till WWI through the eyes of Bill, whose father has a lucrative business. The Harbor gripped me from page one when seven year old Bill shares how he hates the harbor. Though crude to a sheltered rich boy, this harbor is filled with sailing ships, exotic foreigners, spices, silks, and riches. Yeah, there’s plenty of spitting and cursing and the odd fist fight as Bill learns when he meets a Dickensian boy, Sam who’s something of a “harbor-urchin” leading a back of wildish boys who scare and fascinate Bill. He’s never the same after meeting Sam. The rich kids in their starched shirts with their gentle games lose whatever charm they had.
We follow Bill from his often adventurous childhood through college when he meets Joe Kramer, a worldly politically active man, whose family became destitute after his father unknowingly gave tainted medicine to children with small pox. Though the fault was with the drug company, Dr. Kramer and his family were driven out of town and had to move from town to town as rumors caught them. Joe is full of the straight dope. He sees through society’s shams and thinks most of college is a “tour through the graveyard.” Joe comes and goes always making Bill and his sister Sue question their views and life.
The Harbor has the tone of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, that vivid, robust tone from the turn of the century. Poole’s not as polemic or biased as Upton Sinclair (whom I do like). The middle class and upper class views are presented honestly. It was amazing and sad to see how work and life on the harbor got harder when sailing ships were replaced by bigger steel ships.
Poole was the first writer to get a Pulitzer Prize, which he got for his second novel, The Family. From what I’ve read The Harbor‘s the better book and the new prize wanted the author of The Harbor to get credit for the fine writing in that book.
I’ve got that joy of discovering a new favorite writer whose every book I want to read. I’ll get to The Family after I finish his Giants Gone about “the men who made Chicago,” which I’m getting from the library this morning.