Spoiler alert: if you are from Cotuit and want to read the book described below, stop now
Nevil Shute was an English author and aeronautical engineer best remembered for his post-nuclear apocalypse novel, On the Beach. I bumped into his writing as a kid reading a truncated version of his classic Trustee of the Toolroom that had been butchered and stuck in a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book.
Recently I downloaded a ton of classic lit from Project Gutenberg and epubbooks.com and came across a copy of Shute’s An Old Captivity which I loaded into my Kindle and started to read during my commute. It takes place in the 1930s and is about a young Scottish pilot named Donald Ross who scrounges around London for a flying job and is referred to an Oxford don, an archaeologist who is planning an expedition to Greenland to perform an aerial survey of an abandoned Viking settlement on the south coast.
After ordering a new seaplane from an American manufacturer, Ross, a former bush pilot who flew float planes in Labrador and up to Hudson Bay in Canada, fits it out for the long flight from Great Britain to Iceland and then eventually onwards across the Atlantic to Greenland.
During the layover in Reykjavik, Ross seeks out a druggist to get some pills to help him sleep due to the long hours and stress of overseeing the safety of the professor and his somewhat surly daughter. These pills evidently have the desired effect and Ross is able to catch up on his sleep before the long, grueling flight west to the ice-strewn coast of Greenland.
Ross likes these pills and begins to depend on them, but they seem to have the opposite effect and he gets unhinged and suffers a nervous breakdown from the stress and strain of flying over ice floes and perpetual fog banks. The professor and his daughter confiscate the drugs and Ross passes out for 36 hours into a coma-like sleep.
The novel shifts to an extended dream sequence in which Ross imagines himself to be a young slave owned by Leif Erikson, son of Eric the Red, founder of the first settlement on Greenland around 982 CA. The dream imagines Ross paired with another slave, a girl, and they are put aboard a Viking longboat (known as a knarr) after another expedition of discovery returns from a voyage to the west and reports the sighting of forested land but no landing due to the timidity of the Viking captain, one Bjarni. Erikson, infuriated, sets out to explore this land and Ross’s dream imagines the long sail to the coast of Newfoundland where the expedition party goes ashore and founds the settlement known today as L’Anse aux Meadows.
So I’m reading along, a little indifferent to the narrative because it’s a weird shift from the brutal realism and details of arctic aviation circa 1936 and because I know a little about Erikson’s purported expeditions to Canada and New England. There’s lots of local lore and conjecture about Viking settlements in New England, none with much conclusive evidence. There’s Dighton Rock
in the Taunton River in Berkely, Massachusetts and also claims that the Viking land of “Vinland” was actually on Cape Cod near Bass River and a place called Follins Pond
“Holes drilled into rocks along water ways and former water routes have been classified as Norse “mooring holes” by some writers. Presumably, when landing in areas where a speedy departure might be necessary, the Norse drilled a hole in a suitable rock and inserted a mooring pin into it. The pin was attached by a line to the ship. When mooring, the Norse inserted the pin into the hole. For departing they simply tugged on the line, pulled out the mooring pin and stored it for use the next time they landed.
The holes are about 3 cm in diameter and about 12 to 15 cm deep, usually triangular in shape. Several series of holes have been identified as evidence of Norse landings. One was located on Bass River, the outlet for Follins Pond on Cape Cod. Two others were found on the shore of Follins Pond itself and the nearby Mill Pond, close to where Frederick Pohl had predicted they should be if the Norse had stayed there.”
Whatever the historical record and theories may hold, Shute continues the dream voyage from Newfoundland and I started to wonder if the shoreline was meant to be the beach of the outer Cape from Provincetown down to Monomoy Island. The Viking ship turns west at the end of the sandy strand and I started to wonder if Shute was implying Erikson had sailed along the southern coast of Cape Cod.
The knarr enters a bay in Ross’s dream and the slave and his girl companion are told to explore the forested shores and report back in a few days on their findings. I’m by this point trying to imagine if they are roaming around the upper Cape, but dismiss the hunch and keep reading as the two slaves run through the forest marveling at the landscape before returning to the bay where Erikson waits.
Before departing the two slaves — evidently Celtic prisoners captured in some coastal raid by the Vikings on Scotland or Ireland — carve their names into a stone using Norse runic characters, they set this stone on a hill overlooking the bay and sorrowfully leave aboard the boat to head back to Greenland.
Ross wakes up after his long nap and is very deranged by the dream and begins babbling about what he saw. The archaeologist encourages him to share every detail and confides to his daughter that Ross is eerily correct about certain details of the Leif Erikson saga he couldn’t have known but perhaps had come across in some prior reading.
The trio finish their aerial photography survey of the abandoned settlement (the archaeologist believe a Celtic church may be found by analyzing the photos and thus prove that Irish sailors like Saint Brendan had also made their way to Greenland) and pack up the plane to fly it to Canada where it will be sold and they will sail back to England on a Cunard liner.
Ross lands in Hallifax, Nova Scotia and they rest for a spell before pushing on to New York City where the plane’s buyer plans on meeting them. As they fly over the Gulf of Maine from Nova Scotia, Ross sights the curved hook of Provincetown and descends, excitedly proclaiming that the landscape and beach are exactly as he dreamt them. The professor and his daughter grow alarmed as the sea plane flies only a hundred feet above the beach. At Chatham they turn west and skirt the coast. Now here’s the payoff:
“He throttled back, and circled out to sea. The yellow seaplane sank towards the water; presently he opened up again and flew towards the harbour entrance about thirty feet above the water. “This is the place,” he said. They passed the sand spit and flew on above the placid inland water, with Osterville Grand Island on their right hand and Cotuit on the left. They passed on between the wooded shores into the Great Bay and turned to the north. A narrow, river–like stretch of water led inland with wooded country to the west and fairly open, parklike country to the east. They shot up this at ninety miles an hour; it opened out into a still, inland lagoon completely surrounded by the woods. The pilot took the seaplane up to about three hundred feet, and circled round.”
Okay, so my hunch was right. Shute imagined Erickson came into Cotuit Bay and dropped anchor up in North Bay or Prince’s Cove. Ross lands the plane in North Bay — where the gameshow host Gene Rayburn used to land his seaplane in the 1960s, and goes ashore with the professor’s daughter. At the top of a hill they see a stone buried in the dirt and unearth it. The professor confirms it is a geological “erratic” of the type of stone used by the Vikings for ballast. They clean it off and of course aren’t surprised to find the runic carvings of the slaves in the dream.
So that’s pretty cool, but here’s the mystery for me: did Nevil Shute spend time in Cotuit before World War II? If so who was his host? I know two summer families who’s patriarchs were flyers in the RAF. Could one of them be the connection? And what about that stone? Would Shute have thought it clever to carve one up and hide it somewhere on the bluff over looking North Bay, where it probably was destroyed by some new McMansion? And is it a coincidence that there is an actual Nevil Shute fan club on Cape Cod, organized by a married couple in Osterville? And that the world convention of Shute fans came to Cape Cod several years ago?
Update 2018.04.07: My neighbor Phil has joined the hunt. Evidently we aren’t the only ones with questions.