The Fisherman's Son
- Shafer, Audrey
- Date of entry: Nov-20-2003
- Last revised: May-22-2007
This novel of a commercial fisherman's family centers on the son, Neil Kruger, as he struggles to survive on a life raft after a comber, a huge wave, sinks his boat. The book combines his memories of growing up at Half Moon Bay south of San Francisco--the harsh lessons of the sea, his laconic father Ernie, and a disintegrating family--with the story of the illegal activities that led to this last run and his efforts to live.
Death is ever-present for fishermen. Throughout the book, the intimate killing of fish caught one by one is juxtaposed with the constant threat of human loss due to wind, storm, fog, rock, cold and waves. It is a hard-scrabble existence, as over-fishing, pollution, and price control by a few influential merchants combine to depress the fishing business.
As a boy, Neil is told by his mother not to become a fisherman. But then it is she who commands him to join his father one night. This conflict of loyalties, to the land and the sea, to his mother and his father, to religion with its hope of divine intervention and nature with its insensate brutality, cause a tension in Neil that leads him to reflect on his roles as dutiful son, eldest brother and future fisherman.
Neil's memories contain many traumatic events: the rescue of survivors from a hospital ship sunk in a collision with a tanker, the immigration tales of the tightly knit group of Half Moon Bay fishermen, the attempted rescue of one of these men during a storm, and the misadventure during a fishing escapade with his friends, including a wheelchair bound boy with polio. In addition, Neil recalls his father's worsening debility and subsequent post-operative and post-anesthetic problems. By the end of the book, the time frame of Neil's memories converges with his current crisis and time itself becomes as vast and unknowable as the sea.
The author was a commercial fisherman for nineteen years and grew up as member of a fisherman's family in the same locale as the novel's setting. He writes with great authenticity, a deep appreciation for the loyalty between fishermen and a familiarity with death and loss.
Late in the book, after Neil has returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam, his father finally reveals his inner thoughts. Ernie compares the ocean to a mirror, then says to his son, "You've come home, but I'll never really know where you've been. That's the way it is between people. We guess at it . . . We're boats in a fog. A passing wake comes to us. There's someone there, but we never really see them." (p. 256) This is a powerful expression of the distance between people, and can be readily applied to the doctor-patient relationship.