In 1941, Killakeet Island of the wind-swept Outer Banks of North Carolina is home to a tiny, peaceful population of fishermen, clam stompers, oyster rakers, and a few lonely sailors of the Coast Guard. Dominating the glorious, raw beauty of the little island is the majestic Killakeet Lighthouse, which for generations has been the responsibility of one family, the Thurlows.
However, Josh Thurlow, the Keeper's son, has forsworn his heritage to become the commander of the Maudie Jane, a small Coast Guard patrol boat operating off Killakeet. Josh is still tortured by guilt, seventeen years after losing his baby brother at sea. Then his life is complicated by the arrival of the beautiful Dosie Crossan, who has journeyed to lonely Killakeet to escape the outside world and perhaps find a purpose in life. While Josh's heart is stirred by the often-vexing Dosie, he continues his search for his brother, even after a wolfpack of German U-boats arrives to soak the island's beaches with blood and oil.
One of the U-boats is captained by Otto Krebs, a famed and ruthless undersea warrior. Krebs, a man also scarred by lost love, comes to Killakeet, however, with more than torpedoes and plans for war: He may also have the answer to the mystery that haunts Josh Thurlow.
The Keeper's Son is a rousing, romantic tale of the power of the human heart forever searching for redemption.
About the Author
Homer Hickam is the author of six previous books, most notably the #1 New York Times bestseller Rocket Boys, which was made into the acclaimed movie October Sky. He is a Vietnam veteran, a scuba instructor, a retired rocket scientist, and an amateur paleontologist. More than anything else, he loves to write. He and his wife, Linda, and their cats divide their time between homes in the Virgin Islands and Huntsville, Alabama.
Read an Excerpt
The Keeper's Son
By Homer Hickam
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 Homer Hickam
All rights reserved.
Dosie Crossan returned to Killakeet Island to the creak of saddle leather and the jingle of tack, leading a big brown mare down the ramp of the Wednesday ferry from Morehead City. When she had left the island a dozen years before, she had been a rich man's daughter, bright and cheerful and filled with boundless dreams. By November of 1941, Dosie had lived through the Great Depression, discovered what it meant to be hungry, put herself through college by selling encyclopedias door-to-door, and been fired as an assistant editor of a New York publishing house for taking a lunch break that lasted three days. She had also loved too often and been loved back too seldom and was as wary of most men as she was capable of skewering them with a few well-chosen words. In short, Dosie Crossan had left a girl of hope and returned a woman of experience.
Young and pretty women who appear world-weary are attractive to a certain class of men, which is to say nearly all of them. In her riding outfit of a white blouse tucked into jodhpurs, which were in turn tucked into knee-length brown leather boots, she was a "right goodsome package," as the ferry master had it to his skinny, long-legged mate, who had replied, "Yeah, and she knows it, too."
But Dosie didn't know it, which was much of the reason why love had not only eluded her all her adult life, but come very near to destroying her. It was why she habitually wore a wary, yet yearning expression on her otherwise pretty face. Men had often chased her and professed endless love to her, but she thought surely their attentions were mostly a sham and couldn't understand why they had done it. She saw herself, in terms of beauty, as needing more work than was possible. She was, to her thinking, neither tall nor short, her figure routine, and her face, though blessed with unblemished skin, uninspiring. Her brunette hair, which she considered her best feature, was silky, but only because she brushed it religiously, and it lapped down to rest lightly on her shoulders. Often, when she held her head in a certain way, a lock of her hair drifted across her cheek and it gave her, though she had no concept of it, a look of such vulnerability that men felt driven to protect her even as they longed to ravage her. Dosie had a clever mind, interrogative and incisive by nature, careful by design, but it was incapable of seeing herself as others did. That was a blank spot. She took no notice, for instance, of the ferry master, who had difficulty taking his eyes from her during the three-hour journey.
The ferry master was not a particularly imaginative man, but something about the woman who'd come aboard his ferry that morning had struck his heart like an ocean storm. Perhaps it had been the manner in which she had stood so proudly on the deck of the ferry and held her mare's reins and watched each seabird and leaping fish and spit of sand as if she were required to memorize each of them. How happy their sight seemed to make her! As he kept watching her, sideways, glimpses for a moment, then away to come back again, each time longer, the master's heart grew warmer until it was as near afire as a man approaching fifty could bear. And now, after landing, he watched her inspect her surroundings, her summer-sky-blue eyes, which had known sadness — a man can always tell — now aglow with something akin to joy, though all there was to see was a line of plank shacks and nets drying on wooden racks and a few workboats bobbing at rude piers. "I've never been so glad to be anywhere in my life," she said to her mare, startling the mate, who thought at first she was talking to him.
The big mare — Dosie had told the ferry master coming aboard that the horse's full name was Genie's Magic but she called her simply Genie — pawed at the sand as if not quite knowing what to make of the place. The master suspected she was a horse more used to being in green, grassy meadows, and not up to her fetlocks in brown, dry sand. If so, and if she was going to be kept on Killakeet, things were very much about to change for the mare and the young woman, too. Killakeet was sand and more sand piled onto sand, alleviated only by the sea and Pamlico Sound.
The ferry master sighed forlornly and went inside his cabin while barefoot boys dressed in bib overalls ran up from the shacks and then stood openmouthed at the sight of the big horse under full English tack. Genie tossed her head when one of the boys crept over and touched her saddle, then stamped sideways with a low rumble in her throat.
"Be careful!" Dosie snapped, and the boy ran away, stopped, and spat in the sand in embarrassment. The other boys stood scuffing the sand with their toes and wiping their noses with the backs of their hands. Dosie's heart sank at the sight. They were so threadbare and hangdog that she thought of the pictures in Life magazine of ragamuffin Polish children made orphans by the German army. I must make it up to them, she thought.
"I'll give a nickel for each of my trunks if you boys will help move them," she called. Then she nodded back to the ferry where sat four steamer trunks and the mate gazing at them and scratching up under his cap. It had taken two husky dockworkers to get each heavy piece aboard, and the mate was strapped to figure out how he was going to manage to get them down into the sand by himself. He doubted a tip, too.
The boy who had touched Genie's saddle stepped out in front of the other boys and said, "I'll give a penny a trunk to the one boy who helps me. Who's it going to be? You, Huey? Well, come on."
To the relief of the mate, the two boys ran up the ramp and attacked the first steamer trunk, half carrying it, half dragging it into the sand, then they ran back for the next one. Back and forth they went until all four trunks were at the bottom of the ramp.
Dosie called the boy over. "What's your name?" she asked as she gave him his twenty cents from her pocket.
"Herman Guthrie, ma'am," he said. "My maw's Mrs. Abby Guthrie, who heads up the Fish Market ladies. My brother's Fisheye, engine man on the Maudie Jane, that is to say the patrol boat out of Doakes. Paw's dead, drownded a year ago, but before that he was a fisherman, mostly mullet and menhaden when they run."
"Well, Herman," Dosie replied, made a little breathless by the historical family recitation, "I'm sorry to hear about your father. I'm Miss Theodosia Crossan, but friends call me Dosie."
"Oh, I know very well who you are, ma'am," Herman said. "It's known all over Whalebone City that you was coming, by the men who came acrost and got your house ready."
"And is it ready?" Dosie asked, amused.
"Oh, yes, ma'am. Quite ready, I'm sartain."
"Herman, I need those trunks taken to my house. If I pay you an adequate fee, can you manage it?"
Herman looked dubious. "That's a far piece, all the way acrost the island and down the beach past the lighthouse."
"Shall we say two dollars a trunk?"
The boy's eyes nearly popped. "Yes, ma'am. I reckon I can manage!"
An elderly man and a woman had wandered up from the shacks. The man, dressed in coveralls and a faded cotton shirt, and the woman in a cotton housedress with a flower pattern and a gray sweater over it, had spent the time alternately pondering the horse and Dosie's negotiations with Herman. "Hello," Dosie said to them, after Herman ran off to gather his troops.
"Right fine weather for a trip across the sound," the man responded. The way he pronounced it, it came out sounding like roite foine.
"I was glad it was calm," Dosie said, after taking a moment to interpret the Killakeet brogue. "I was afraid Genie would get seasick."
"What kind of horse is she?"
"She's a quarter horse," Dosie answered.
"Well, young lady, if I [Oi] had a quarter, I'd [Oi'd] give it to you for her, that's for sartain. So you are here to open up the Crossan House?" When Dosie nodded, he said, "You see, Etta, I told you the Depression was over. Why else would the Crossans come back?"
A hopeful smile formed on the woman's otherwise pinched face. "You don't know me, Miss Dosie, but I'm Etta Padgett. I used to come by to pick up your laundry."
"Why, I do recall you, Mrs. Padgett," Dosie said, pleased that she really did remember after she mentally subtracted a dozen years and a few cares from the woman's face. "How are you?"
"Tolerable. And this is the mister. His name's Pump."
Dosie shook his hand. "I'm so glad to meet you."
"Well, little lady, same here. All I mostly ever saw of the Crossans was their clothes hanging on the line. Good to meet one in person."
"Is your whole family coming?" Mrs. Padgett asked eagerly. "I can still do the laundry with the best of them."
"Not yet. I'll be alone, at least for the next several months." Dosie hesitated, then added, "I'm on something of a spiritual journey, you see."
The couple shared a look, then Mr. Padgett said, "Killakeet Island's not a bad place for the spiritual. Queenie O'Neal used to hold sea-nances regular at the Hammerhead Hotel until one night the ghost of Blackbeard hisself showed up and turned their table over. You shoulda seen those ladies scatter, ran out into Walk to the Base a-squalling."
"She ain't talking about ghosts, old man," Mrs. Padgett growled out of the side of her mouth, then smiled sweetly at Dosie. "You know where I live, honey? Just two tracks back from Doc Folsom's infirmary on the Atlantic side. The house with the gate curved along the top. You come see me or send word if you need anything."
"Yes, ma'am, I will," Dosie said. Then, seeing that Herman had successfully completed his subcontracting and that an entire army of barefoot boys were lifting her trunks across the island, she stepped into the stirrup and swung her leg over Genie's back, settling familiarly into the saddle. She clicked her tongue and said, "Walk on," and Genie did, following the boys and the trunks. They reminded her of ants carrying bread crumbs.
Before long, Herman fell in beside her, deciding his troops had no need of close supervision. In fact, they were racing one another to see who could get across the island with the trunks the fastest. He began to point out the sights. "This would be Teach Woods, ma'am," he said as the track led them through a vine-filled forest of live oak, red cedar, and juniper trees.
"Yes, I know," Dosie said. "It was named after Edward Teach, who was Blackbeard the Pirate. Have you looked much for his gold?"
Herman was astonished that Dosie knew about Blackbeard's gold.
Dosie laughed. "It's the same with every crop of kids here. When I used to come here for the summer, my brothers and I looked for it, too."
"You didn't find it, did you?" Herman asked suspiciously.
"No, and I remember how disappointed I was. Now I realize just looking was treasure enough."
"That don't make no sense," Herman said.
"At your age, it wouldn't. But give it a few years and it might."
Before long they had passed through the woods and reached a line of sand hills, six to eight feet high, that barred the approach to the beach. The track turned north behind the dunes to Whalebone City. Dosie could see its cluster of wooden houses and the moderately tall steeple of its church, and down the track that was called Walk to the Base, she could see the old Surfmen's House, a two-storied, whitewashed structure with a lookout tower in its center, the glass panes sparkling in the sun. It had once housed the legendary surfmen who'd gone out in storms to rescue the crews of battered ships. Now, it was the headquarters of Doakes Coast Guard Station.
"I live up that way, ma'am," Herman said, pointing. "We got a nice house just back of Walk to the Base one street over toward Pamlico. Granpaw built it with planks wrecked from a sugar boat named Carole English fetched up on Bar Shoals around ninety-seven or so. The church there was built by wrecking the Frances Clayton, a goodsome schooner. I guess, come to think on it, there ain't a house in town what ain't been built from wrecking."
Dosie looked over the village, recalling the fun she'd once had as a girl exploring it. I'll come visit, she promised herself, but not until I'm ready. Then, she nudged Genie toward a notch in the dunes through which the boys and her trunks had disappeared. The roar of the ocean assaulted her as she and Genie passed through. Genie pulled her ears back and stamped her hooves and would have shied, but Dosie told her to stop acting silly and walk on. Shivering nervously, Genie obediently crossed the high-tide mark and entered the windswept strand of brown sand and pounding surf that seemed to go on forever.
And then there it was, a mile or so south, the great Killakeet Lighthouse, a dazzling white tower with a single black bar painted halfway up. "I had forgotten how beautiful it was," Dosie said, and then she breathed in the warm, saltladen air, which felt like a tonic. The temperature had risen with every step toward the Atlantic side of the island. Killakeet was on nearly the same latitude as Bermuda and kissed by the same tropical water brought up by the Gulf Stream.
The boys carting the trunks scarcely glanced at the lighthouse, nor did Herman choose to mention it until Dosie kept going on about it. "I've been to the top of it," he said. "It's right high. And you can see the Stream out there, all a deep, thick blue."
"I never went up on it," Dosie confessed, "although I always wanted to."
"Keeper Jack would take you, I'll bet."
"Keeper Jack. There's a name I haven't heard for years," Dosie said wistfully. "I wondered if he was still the keeper."
"Oh, yes, ma'am. I guess he'll always be the keeper, lest he dies."
Dosie recalled that she'd hung back whenever her brothers had gone to the top, mainly because she had hoped that Josh, Keeper Jack's son, would offer to take her. But Josh, six years older, had never paid the slightest bit of attention to her even though she took every opportunity to stand near him, often sighing, and had once even given him a present of a flattened copper penny with his name stamped on it, made by a machine on the boardwalk at Atlantic City. He'd said, "Thanks," and put it in his pocket and never mentioned it again. When she'd left the island, her heart had been a bit broken by Josh's inattention. Now, she could understand why he had ignored her. When they'd last been together that summer of 1929, she'd just been an ungainly thirteen-year old, probably smelling of milk, which her mother made her drink more or less constantly for her bones. Josh had been a college man, home to visit, and sophisticated beyond measure. He had even smoked a pipe.
As they drew nearer the lighthouse, there was no sign of anyone on the parapet, nor was there anyone evident around the Keeper's House. It was a neat and cozy-looking white house with a chimney at each end. Several rockers sat on its porch, and clay fern pots hanging from chains swayed in the wind. "Keeper Jack's most likely in Whalebone City," Herman said. "Today's his poker day."
"I suppose Josh is at sea," Dosie said while nudging Genie away from the keeper's lawn, the only green grass they'd observed on the island. "I heard he joined the Coast Guard."
"I reckon so," Herman said. "He usually takes the Maudie Jane out every day, not counting weekends. Fisheye says he ain't never seen a man quite so happy to get out on the water as Ensign Thurlow."
"You mean Josh lives here on the island?"
Herman squinted up at her as if uncertain he'd heard her right. "Why, yes, ma'am. He's been here for a couple of months now, come in from duty in Alaska. He commands Doakes Station and captains the patrol boat."
"Well, I'm surprised," Dosie said, and she was. "Does he live at the lighthouse?"
"Oh, no, ma'am. He stays at the hotel so he can be near his boat." Then, as if quoting someone, Herman said, "There ain't nothing more important to a Killakeet man than his boat."
While Dosie considered the news of Josh Thurlow, they kept going south, the Crossan House gradually creeping into view. It was precisely as she remembered it, perfectly suited for its location, driftwood gray, a cedar-shake roof, a porch that wrapped nearly all the way around with plenty of rocking chairs, and dormer windows on the second story. It was a sturdy, unpretentious house, with a charm given it by the wind and sea that had battered and weathered it now for over thirty years. She recalled that her father liked to call it the "unpainted aristocrat," though officially it was called the Crossan House.
Excerpted from The Keeper's Son by Homer Hickam. Copyright © 2003 Homer Hickam. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Reading Group Guide
Haunted by inner demons, Josh Thurlow returns home to Killakeet Island to command a small Coast Guard patrol boat manned by a colorful crew of locals. Dominating the glorious beauty of the little island is the majestic Killakeet Lighthouse, kept for generations by the Thurlow family. Its presence is a continuous reminder to Josh of the mysterious loss of his baby brother at sea seventeen years before, a tragedy for which he was blamed. But Josh is convinced that his brother might still be alive and begins searching for him even after German U-boats arrive and soak the beaches with blood.
Josh's quest puts him in the path of Otto Krebs-the most audacious of the U-boat commanders and a deadly enemy who may also hold the answers Josh is seeking. But when he meets Dosie Crossan, a young woman fighting her own war against the invaders, Josh must decide whether to risk all on a love that could destroy him or redeem him...
1. How would you describe this book? Would you call it a man's book or a woman's book?
2. Can a single incident like Josh losing Jacob define the rest of a person's life? Josh is an intelligent man, why do you think he continues to search for Jacob 17 years later?
3. As you read this novel, did you begin to feel as if you knew the people involved? Do you think you'd have been happy to live on Killakeet? What characteristics are distinctive about the islanders? How has the island shaped them? Did you like them?
4. Caught up in the interesting life of the people of Killakeet, we suddenly find ourselves on board a German submarine in Chapter 3. Was that a shock? Did it keep you interested to follow both stories and wonder how they were going to intersect?
5. What do you think Krebs liked about being a U-boat captain? Were Krebs and Max a good commanding team? Why do you think Germans like Krebs and Max and the young men on board the U-boats who were not Nazis fought so hard for their country?
6. Is Josh a good commander to the men on the Maudie Jane? Does he lead by example or by fear? Do the Maudie Janes become better people as well as sailors under his leadership?
7. Krebs is supposed to be the enemy. Does the change in him after falling in love with and then losing Miriam seem believable? Do we end up liking him, or even pitying him?
8. Josh has some trouble understanding his father's relationships with women. Why does Josh think he doesn't need this and feel his father weaker for his wanting it? Does this attitude temper his relationship with Dosie?
9. Headstrong Dosie has her own problems and has been burned in other love relationships. Is she likable? Is she too much the romantic for Josh? How are Dosie and Josh different? How are they alike? Do they really love each other and is there any chance for them as a couple?
10. Homer's editor found Purdy the pelican one of his favorite characters in the book. Pets and animals are often featured in Hickam books and here we have Marvin, Genie, and the wild ponies too. Do they add to the flavor of the story?
11. Homer introduces a major character, cowboy Rex Stewart, in Chapter 24, a risky thing to do so late in a book. Does it work? Are you interested in Rex and does bringing an outsider to the island add to the story?
12. Preacher's God is a cruel one. Did you understand Preacher's conflict between his faith and the reality of the war he sees? Did he die at peace with this or still shaken by it?
13. Why did Krebs take the risk of contacting the Maudie Jane about looking for his overboard sailors? Did enemies Thurlow and Krebs have some respect for each other? In a different time and situation, could they have ever been friends?
14. The ending of the book lets the reader make some of their own decisions about what happened. A major theme throughout the book is that on Killakeet, the sea will eventually answer all questions. Did it? Did the comparison of the beach glass in Miriam's cross show Dosie proof that Harro is Jacob? Does it matter if he is or not? Do you think Dosie and Josh stayed together, or married?
15. In the Historical Note at the end, the author explains that although it is fiction, the book is very realistically based on his research and anecdotal information obtained while writing his first book Torpedo Junction and also scuba diving on the sunken wrecks and submarines along the Outer Banks. The battle he wrote about in Torpedo Junction was, in fact, one of the greatest and longest battles of the war, yet was virtually unknown. Did you know about this terrible part of WWII before this book?
16. The government's war records of this nine-month period were classified "Secret" until they were declassified in the 1975 Freedom of Information Act. Homer Hickam was one of the first people to study them. The author does not know why they were classified for so long. Was it perhaps because officials were ashamed we did not defend that area properly and lost so many lives unnecessarily? What do you think? For detailed information, read Hickam's 1989 nonfiction naval history, "Torpedo Junction."