Read Cape Cod Online

Authors: William Martin

Tags: #Historical, #Mystery

Cape Cod

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For all the family and all the friends, across all the years, who have enjoyed Cape Cod with me.


My family for many years kept a summer home on the bluffs of Manomet—just south of Plymouth, where the historical Cape begins, and just north of the canal, where the geographical Cape flexes eastward. I could sit on the lawn and, in one sweep of the eye, take in all of Cape Cod Bay, from the beach that protects the Great Salt Marsh to the place where the summer fog hangs above Chatham to the dunes of Provincetown, some twenty-two miles to the east yet near enough to touch.

It was a good place for daydreaming. I loved to study the sailboats skimming along in the summer breezes, the lobster-men tending their pots, the freighters steaming toward Boston, and if I closed my eyes, I could even imagine the
crossing the bay.

Our ancestry was Irish and Lithuanian, but like many generations of Americans before us, we had embraced the story of the First Comers as our own, perhaps because all of us, in one way or another, come from Pilgrims. In fact, an uncle of mine, who was something of an artist, once painted the First Thanksgiving as a family portrait. It did not matter that he was a Catholic priest and so would have been, at the very least, distrusted by the strict Separatists who settled Plymouth and Cape Cod. The truth of what they did was more powerful to him than the details of what they believed.

In 1957, the year that the
Mayflower II
reached Plymouth, he made us all Pilgrims in oil and canvas. To my Black Irish father he gave armor, helmet, and blunderbuss. To my mother he gave the apron and bowl of the Pilgrim goodwife. To me he gave a hatchet and painted me cutting up the squash for the most famous meal ever eaten in America. I appreciated that. I still do. And though he has passed on, he deserves my thanks.

Of course, many others have helped more concretely with my tale of the First Comers and their descendants. They have helped me in the details and the broad contours and I thank them all, from the shoulder to the hand of Cape Cod.

At Plimoth Plantation:
James Baker, Theodore Curtin, who so vividly portrays Master Christopher Jones on the
Mayflower II;
Nanepashemet; Richard Pickering; and all of the interpreters and guides in the village, at the Indian settlement, and aboard the
Mayflower II
, who bring history to life with accuracy, imagination, and passion.

In Plymouth:
the staff of the Pilgrim Hall Museum.

In Sandwich:
Brian Cullity of the Heritage Plantation.

In Woods Hole:
William Sargent.

In Mashpee:
Joan Tavares and Richard Scoville, of the Mashpee Indian Education Program; Rosemary Burns and Ann Tanneyhill of the Mashpee Archives.

In Hyannis:
Marion Vuilleumier.

In Barnstable:
Susan Klein and the staff of the Sturgis Library; the staff of the Nickerson Library.

In Dennis:
Richard Zisson; Captain George Mabee.

In Brewster:
Frederick Dunford, staff archaeologist of the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, and the rest of the museum staff; Robert Finch; Marion Hobbs; Doris Mullen; David Palmer; Janine and Richard Perry; Robert Wilkinson; and the members of the Brewster Historical Society, who maintain museum and mills.

In Harwich:
Joshua Atkins Nickerson II; the staff of the Brooks Free Library.

In Chatham:
Tom Marshall.

In Orleans:
Susan Nickerson of the Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod; Eldredge Sparrow.

In Eastham:
Nathan Nickerson.

In Wellfleet:
Helen Olsen of the Wellfleet Historical Society; Stephen Kakes; Franny Choate, who can read the water on Billingsgate Shoals the way most people read their mail.

In Truro:
Rosemary Broton Boyle.

In Provincetown:
Napi Van Dereck; Patti and Ciro Cozzi.

Also, thanks to the rangers and staff of the Cape Cod National Seashore; and to all of the volunteers at all of the Cape’s historical societies and in all of the Cape’s historical sites, from Aptucxet to Wood End, whose enthusiasm helps to keep the past alive.

And to a few off-Capers: George F. Amadon; the Reverend Mr. Peter Gomes; Gary Goshgarian; Robert Gould; Stephen Martell; the Reverend Mr. George Werner; Conrad Wright and the staff of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

And to my editor, Jamie Raab; my agent, Robert Gottlieb; and, of course, to my wife and children, who never complain.

William Martin

November 1990


The novel you are about to read begins, it is safe to say, where no novel has begun before or since: in the mind of a pilot whale, in Cape Cod Bay, on an autumn afternoon about a thousand years ago.

But we don’t stay there long.

Soon we’re aboard the
on a bleak November morning in 1620. The little ship has been pounding the Atlantic swell for six weeks. The passengers and crew are exhausted. And before them rises a great bluff, the sandy brow of the immense American wilderness.

And soon after that, we’re stuck in traffic in a minivan on the July Fourth weekend. The Sagamore Bridge glimmers in the heat haze ahead. The kids are bickering in the back seat. Mom and Dad are losing patience.

This book covers a long span of time. But so does the history of the Cape.

When I finished it back in 1990, I suggested to my editor that a good oneline description might be:
The story of Cape Cod is the story of America
. It was true then, and it’s true today.

That fragile spit of sand, dumped by the glaciers ten thousand years ago and sculpted by the sea every day since, has seen every movement of American history from the Pilgrim settlement to the real estate booms and busts of the last thirty years. But what makes the Cape unique is that nature has not simply affected human lives there. It has defined them.

In winter, the wind scours the sand and drives even the heartiest locals indoors. In summer, the sun brings joy to vacationers, while the rain clears the beaches and fills the shops and brings money for the merchants. But there are deeper rhythms, too. The tides flood the estuaries and marshes twice a day. The birds and fish keep to migratory patterns established thousands of years ago. And surrounding it all is the ocean, a tangible presence, a living god, sometimes benign, sometimes angry, giving all who gaze upon it a sense of limitless possibility and insignificance, too.

The Pilgrims and their descendants set out to tame the world they found on Cape Cod. They saw it as part of God’s plan. They harvested the whales on the beaches and hunted the whales in the bay. They stripped the trees for lumber and firewood and burned the forests to clear their fields. They struggled, sometimes violently, with the Wampanoag Indians, whose name means “children of the dawn” and whose gods were as real to them as the Christian God was to the Pilgrims.

Generations of shipwrights, seafarers, and fisherman followed. They built the neat villages and towns of Cape Cod. But they seldom built houses looking out to sea because, as one old Cape Codder told me, “The sea was a place of work and death.”

Then Henry David Thoreau came for a visit just before the Civil War. He looked out to sea
into the future. And he wrote, “The time must come when this coast will be a place of resort…” He was right. Before long, the wealthy were building mansions at the ocean’s edge. And then vacationers arrived for those two-week summer rentals that are as much a part of the Cape’s seasonal rhythm as the migration of the whales.

I’ve been in love with the Cape since boyhood, and once I began to write novels, I knew that someday I would tell the story of the place and its people and their unique relationship to nature.

I decided that I would tell it from the beginning… or from before the beginning. That’s why the book opens as it does, with a whale stranding observed by… well, read the book to find out. And I knew I could not tell it without the Pilgrims, the first of so many who came to the Cape to find freedom or fulfillment. And I would close the narrative circle by bringing the story all the way to the present, to a family of Pilgrim descendants struggling over their ancient birthright.

A hundred people sailed on the
. They called themselves Saints and Strangers. Some were religious separatists. Others had joined the voyage just for profit. Fifty survived the first winter, and while many of them were filled with piety, all of them were tough, resilient, and resourceful. The proof is that today, more than ten percent of the American population can trace their ancestry back to those fifty.

They were like us in some ways… but very different, too.

The senior historian at Plimoth Plantation, the Pilgrims’ living history museum, put it best. He said that the Pilgrims had all the big things figured out. They understood their relationship to God and eternity. It was only the little things that troubled them, the daily problems of shelter, fuel, and food. We, on the other hand, have most of the little things settled, but it’s our place in the cosmos that leaves us wondering.

If this novel has a theme, a big idea, it’s in that observation.

But don’t bother yourself too much about the big ideas. I’m a storyteller. My job is to keep you up past your bedtime. And it’s the story that has kept readers turning these pages for two decades. Let the thousand-year plot wash over you while the characters in the smaller plots—Saints and Strangers, praying Indians and Wampanoag warriors, rebels and royalists, slave runners, rumrunners, show runners, whaling men, fishermen, oystermen, real estate agents, developers, and conservationists—swirl around you and sweep you through time.

They’re all after a secret. The secret is in a lost book. The book is the log of the
. It reveals the truth about the first scandalous death in the New World, and perhaps something more. Yeah, it’s juicy. Enjoy it. But remember that while I aim for historical accuracy (this is one of the few novels ever offered for sale at the Plimoth Plantation museum bookstore) not everything that you’ll read here happened as it’s described… or even happened at all.

Looking back, I am happy to say that I have forgotten the fourteen-hour days, the seven-day weeks, and the last two months when I never left the house. A writer always forgets the hard part once the work is done.

Instead, I can recall dozens of experiences begun as research that became cherished memories. I see my wife and little children in the bright summer sun. We are wandering the paths and dunes of Wing Island in Brewster, the inspiration for the fictional Jack’s Island. Or I am standing with my father in the meetinghouse at Plimoth Plantation. We are marveling that they made their house of God a strong fortress as well.

The kids are grown now, and my father has passed, but I see all those scenes in the present tense because there is something perpetually present about the Cape. The cycles make it so.

Things have continued to change on Cape Cod since this book was published. More commuters ride the bus every day to Boston. More traffic lights flash. More condos and trophy houses rise in places where once there were small cottages. The struggle to accommodate the needs of a modern population in an ecologically fragile place goes on. The business cycle of boom, bust, and boom still turns.

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