July 9, 2008
New book set on Portsmouth Island combines history and romance
By SUNDAE HORN
newly-published novel, “Portsmouth: Spies, U-Boats and Romance on
the Outer Banks” by Edward P. Norvell, is chock full of
well-researched historical detail woven in and around a wartime love
If you were a lonely young widow on Portsmouth Island, and you found a
handsome sailor washed up on the beach, wouldn’t you take him
home and feed him? That’s what Marcia Styron does when she finds
Sub-lieutenant Bruce Hall one morning in May, 1942. After he rests from
his ordeal, he tells her he’s a British officer, the lone
survivor of the HMS Bedfordshire, which was torpedoed off the coast of
Ocracoke. The two take a liking to each other, and this being a
romance, Marcia offers to keep the shipwrecked sailor for the Coast Guard
until they need him for questioning.
But Bruce Hall isn’t who he appears to be. He is, in fact, a
German submariner named Kurt Sanger sent ashore to find out how much
the Americans know about German U-boats and the Enigma code machine
that recently went down with the U-85. While Marcia goes shopping in
the village, her ersatz sailor sets up radio contact with his German
superiors and plots to fool Marcia and spy for his country.
Sanger’s not immune to Marcia’s charms, however, and he
feels conflicted about lying to her. They are young and beautiful and
attracted to each other and isolated on the beach far from the village.
Matters take their course, and the two become lovers, enjoying the
splendors of island living (i.e., seafood feasts and skinny-dipping).
None of the above spoils the story – the basic facts are in the
blurb on the back cover. The reader knows about Sanger’s true
identity from the beginning, but the question is: What happens when two
people fall in love and one of them turns out to be an enemy spy? In
spite of the undercover intrigue, “Portsmouth” is not so
much a mystery or a thriller as it is a history book, but the history
lessons are lightened by the romance.
Interspersed around the story of Kurt and
Marcia’s love affair, are the ugly truths about the war and its
devastation. From detailed accounts of the German U-boat offensive to
the firebombing of Dresden, it’s obvious that author Norvell has
done his research well. It’s also impressive that he
doesn’t shy away from the facts that paint the U.S. in a less
than perfect light, and he shows empathy toward the German submariners
who were courageously doing their part for their homeland, even though
many of them were not members of the Nazi party. The German attack on
American shipping was kept quiet during the war, and only folks along
the coast knew the truth about the dangerous U-boats and the bodies
washing ashore. “Portsmouth” is full of historical nuggets
of information, and most readers will learn a lot about World War II on
the Outer Banks.
Norvell spent the past two summers on Ocracoke doing research for the novel.
“I love history,” he said in a recent interview. “And
I wanted to write a book about Ocracoke and Portsmouth –
it’s a fictional story told within the realistic setting of World
Fans of Ocracoke’s history will recognize many of the names and
places in “Portsmouth.” Charlotte O’Neal, the island
midwife, makes an appearance, as do Henry Pigott and Aycock Brown.
Sanger/Hall takes the mailboat, Aleta, from Portsmouth to Ocracoke, is
questioned at the Coast Guard Station and has a drink at the Spanish
Casino. Some of the Ocracokers mentioned in the book are still living
on the island, and the epilogue takes place in modern day Ocracoke.
Norvell’s home is in Salisbury, N.C., where he works as an
attorney for non-profit land trusts across North Carolina. He and his
wife, Susan, have two children, Philip, 21, and Mary Linn, 23. They
visited Ocracoke for years before buying a house here in 2002, where
they spend summers.