Historical fiction that illuminates today’s issues

Today we have Amy Hill Hearth talking about historical fiction that illuminates the issues of today. Amy’s latest novel, Silent Came the Monster, is based on the 1916 Jersey Shore shark attacks.

If that didn’t grab your attention, it certainly did mine!

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In July 1916, while the horrific Battle of the Somme began and the bloody conflict at Verdun raged on, Americans, still divided about entering the war, were in uproar over, of all things, a shark.

This was not just any shark. It was the type of man-eating beast that wasn’t supposed to ever be present in the waters off New Jersey or New York, or so it was almost-universally believed, even by the director of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. 

And yet, to the horror of everyone, “something” was fatally attacking swimmers at the Jersey Shore, one after another as it made its way northward.

As a longtime resident of the Jersey Shore, an hour south of Manhattan by train or high-speed ferry, I’ve known of the story of the shark – often referred to around here as “the real JAWS” – for a long time. In the spring of 2020, during the early days of Covid-19, the story of the shark popped back into my mind. I saw parallels in the way that we humans react to a new, dire threat. Shock, terror, confusion, denial, defiance, and even conspiracy theories are common.

I began researching the shark in earnest, and writing relentlessly. It was a way for me to process the experience of living through the pandemic lockdown.

The first fatal shark attack occurred July 1 at the beach in front of an elegant hotel in Beach Haven, N.J., and there was so much confusion and denial that the culprit was called a “sea monster.” Few people were willing to speculate that it might be a shark. Even the New York Times, which carried a small, strangely-worded account two days later, referred to the attacker in the headline as a “fish.” 

Theories included a giant mackerel, an enormous sea turtle, and even a German U-boat. Whatever it was, surely it had simply gone back out to sea – or so it was hoped.

But then there were more fatal attacks. Over a period of twelve days, there were four deaths and a fifth victim who survived with a serious injury, in addition to some scary sightings and near-misses. The story created sheer panic. The events were so bizarre and unprecedented that even the Times of London felt compelled to publish a story in the midst of the usual all-consuming war coverage.

What made the shocking story especially significant was that the Jersey Shore was the favored summer retreat of the wealthy, genteel, and powerful from New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Indeed, President Woodrow Wilson was spending time at the Jersey Shore that summer, following a long tradition begun by Ulysses S. Grant. 

Strangely, the summer of 1916 was already a time of fear and foreboding. A heatwave in the eastern half of the U.S. was sickening many Americans as well as destroying crops. Meanwhile, an epidemic of infantile paralysis (polio), what is now thought to be the worst outbreak in U.S. history, was killing or crippling thousands of children, the primary victims, and mainly in New York and New Jersey.

Two nonfiction books were published on the shark back in 2001, but it seemed to me that the story was due for an entirely new retelling, this time, from the point of view of the people experiencing the crisis as it was unfolding, and without any of the knowledge we have now of ocean creatures. Thus, I began writing the story as historical fiction. (It is also considered part of the Thriller genre.)

Of course, I stuck with the facts in every way possible. But I invented the main character, Dr. Edwin Halsey, a surgeon who examines the victims (in some cases, bodies). Although he doesn’t truly want to become involved, Dr. Halsey finds himself trying to convince a skeptical public that the culprit is indeed a shark, and that it is likely to strike again. Dr. Halsey, meanwhile, is also dealing with the polio epidemic which was so severe that there were calls for blockades preventing children from entering New Jersey, especially from New York City, where new immigrants were taking the blame for the epidemic.

The war in Europe is in the background yet ever-present in the novel. For many Americans, the war seemed far away, although tensions were growing between those who believed the U.S. should help our friends by joining the war, and those who felt that America should stay out of it.

Meanwhile, it really did seem as if the Germans were provoking, or at least attempting to unnerve, Americans. Hence, the conspiracy theory that the “sea monster” was somehow related to a German U-boat was not as fantastical as it sounds. German U-boats were prowling along the East Coast, including one, the Deutschland, which was traveling openly to Baltimore, technically as a merchant vessel. (As an aside, my grandfather joined the U.S. Army, anticipating that the U.S. would join the war. He was stationed at the Verrazzano Narrows, the entrance to New York Harbor. His job? To watch for any signs of U-boats trying to sneak past and attack the city.)

In this context, it’s easy to understand how a shark brought anxiety to a new level. Even a peaceful respite at the Jersey Shore was now out of reach. Nowhere, it seemed, was safe. 

The bigger lesson, to me, is that human psychology remains constant. As a species, we are rather clumsy at assessing and dealing with risk, whether the threat comes from a man-eating rogue shark, or a virus called Covid-19.

Thank you, Amy. I appreciate your thoughts on how the past informs the present and the notion that human psychology doesn’t change. As for the Jersey Shore, I’m not rushing to put it on my list of places to visit!

Silent Came the Monster by Amy Hill Hearth ~~

“Sharks are as timid as rabbits,” says a superintendent of the Coast Guard, dismissing the possibility that a shark could be the culprit in an unprecedented fatal attack at the Jersey Shore. It’s July, and swimming in the sea is a popular new pastime, but people up and down the East Coast are shocked and mystified by the swimmer’s death.

A prominent surgeon at the shore, Dr. Edwin Halsey is the one who examines the victim, and the only one who believes the perpetrator was a shark — and that it will strike again.

With the public and the authorities — and even those who witnessed the attacks — so stubbornly disbelieving, Dr. Halsey finds himself fighting widespread confusion, conspiracy theories, and outright denial. Seeking the input of commercial fisherman, he soon learns they have long been concerned about a creature they call the Beast. The Lenape, one of the tribes native to the area, have their own beliefs about this creature, but can Dr. Halsey convince the rest of the world before it’s too late?

The shark attacks occur in an already fraught time. A brutal war rages in Europe, and Americans are divided about becoming involved. Meanwhile, an unprecedented outbreak of “infantile paralysis” (polio) creates widespread panic. Into this scenario, the sea monster arrives. But what is it? Theories range from a huge mackerel to a giant sea turtle, or even a German submarine. 

The story of the 1916 Jersey Shore shark, believed to be a great white, changed the way Americans think of the seashore, reminding us once again that nature plays by its own rules.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY 

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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3 Responses

  1. Being from NJ, I’m rather excited to hear about this book! My son learned about this at age 5 and was fascinated, and so in 2016 we went to Matawan for the commemoration of the event. I’ll be telling some NJ people about this book for sure!

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