by Lisa Moore

In February of 1982, the gigantic oil rig Ocean Ranger sank off the coast of Newfoundland. All 84 men on board drowned. Overnight, Helen O’Mara, happily married mother of three (and pregnant with her fourth) becomes a widow. Helen must contend with the sudden loss of her husband and find the strength to carry on and raise her children by herself.

Moore brilliantly conveys Helen’s loneliness after Cal’s death and her struggle to be a decent mother. She and Cal had been young sweethearts and very much in love when they married. Her memories and thoughts of Cal evoke a strong, tender relationship. 
Somehow Helen had picked up the idea that there was such a thing as love, and she had invested fully in it. She had summoned everything she was, every little tiny scrap of herself, and she’d handed it over to Cal and said: This is yours.” (p. 49) 

Devastated when that is taken from her, Helen seems to be in shock for awhile and feels cut off from everyone else, that she is "outside" or "banished". But she doesn't want the children to know what has happened to her. At all costs they must think that everything is all right, that she is all right and that she will continue to look after them, and so she does homework with them, does her chores and housework … 
Helen folded laundry. Matching socks was an act that looked very much like matching socks. She looked exactly as though she were in the world … And when she was done there would be an actual pile of socks.” (p. 21)

Of course, the more she pretends and the longer this goes on, the better she gets at it. But her children also become more sophisticated and harder to fool, so she has to do more and more, eventually working, sewing, taking up yoga, fixing the house… All of this leads her back to being in the world and not “outside” any more.

Through Helen’s personal struggle we also gain some understanding of the devastating effect the accident had on the community. Cal’s death leaves Helen, their children and his own parents, bereft and abandoned. When Helen’s father-in-law calls to tell her about identifying Cal’s body, we feel their sorrow as they talk or don’t talk on the telephone. The silences between them are as eloquent as their speech. But 84 men died that night and each one — husband, son, father, uncle or friend — left a hole in the lives of those left behind.

Moore’s description of the men’s drowning is harrowing. Although this is a fictionalized version of the events of that night, her account tallies with the reported facts. Lack of adequate training in handling emergencies and in evacuation of the rig, led inevitably to the final, drastic conclusion. When the rig finally went down, at least some of the men got into the lifeboats, and rescue boats arrived from other rigs in the vicinity. But the violence of the storm, and the extreme cold, prevented any rescue attempts from succeeding. They were unable to pull anyone out of the water. They simply had to watch as the men died, and there was nothing they could do. It is hard to read these passages without weeping.

The men on the Seaforth Highlander saw the men in the water…The ropes are frozen, the men on board the Highlander were telling the men in the water. The men on the Highlander were compelled to narrate all their efforts so that the dying men would know unequivocally that they had not been abandoned…And there must have come a moment, Helen thinks, when all this shouting back and forth was no longer about turning the event around, because everybody on both sides knew there would be no turning it around. The men in the water knew they would die and the men on board knew the men in the water would die. But they kept on trying anyway.

And then all the shouting was just for company. Because who wants to watch a man being swallowed by a raging ocean without yelling out to him. They had shouted to the men in the water. They had tried to reach the men with grappling hooks. They saw them and then they did not see them. It was as simple as that. (pp. 272-274)

Moore's success with this book is attributable to her beautiful, heartfelt writing. We get drawn into the story from the first page and relive the tragedy of the accident through Helen’s recollections. We feel a connection with her as we get swept up in her own story. Whether we see her in the present, or as she thinks about the past, we always know what she is thinking and we understand her feelings. Her struggle to get on with life and deal with loneliness and hardship are things we can all relate to and Moore’s realistic portrayal makes Helen come alive. As we leave her behind we see some hope for the future, and for that I am glad.

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