Sisters of the Sweetwater Fury, Guest Post by Kinley Bryan

Three sisters. Two Great Lakes. One furious storm.

Based on actual events…

It’s 1913 and Great Lakes galley cook Sunny Colvin has her hands full feeding a freighter crew seven days a week, nine months a year. She also has a dream—to open a restaurant back home—but knows she’d never convince her husband, the steward, to leave the seafaring life he loves.

In Sunny’s Lake Huron hometown, her sister Agnes Inby mourns her husband, a U.S. Life-Saving Serviceman who died in an accident she believes she could have prevented. Burdened with regret and longing for more than her job at the dry goods store, she looks for comfort in a secret infatuation.

Two hundred miles away in Cleveland, youngest sister Cordelia Blythe has pinned her hopes for adventure on her marriage to a lake freighter captain. Finding herself alone and restless in her new town, she joins him on the season’s last trip up the lakes.On November 8, 1913, a deadly storm descends on the Great Lakes, bringing hurricane-force winds, whiteout blizzard conditions, and mountainous thirty-five-foot waves that last for days. Amidst the chaos, the women are offered a glimpse of the clarity they seek, if only they dare to perceive it.

The inspiration behind Sisters of the Sweetwater Fury

Sisters of the Sweetwater Fury is the story of three sisters caught in the Great Lakes Storm of November 1913, and their struggle against this once-in-a-century storm—with its hurricane-force winds, whiteout blizzard conditions, and mountainous waves. It’s also the story of the three women’s struggles to exert some control over their own lives, at a time when society’s roles for women were limited.

The setting for the novel was inspired by stories my father told me about his grandparents, sailors who were caught in the storm. My grandfather, Walter Stalker, was captain of the Golden Age, a four-masted schooner that had been the largest sailing vessel in the world when built in 1882. My grandmother, Annabel Stalker, was the ship’s cook. At least one of their children—possibly all four—were aboard. They found shelter in a cove on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan, and anchored there until the storm finally blew itself out.

Wave breaking on the shore of Lake Michigan by Lincoln Park: Wikimedia

There’s a wave pattern of Great Lakes sailing lore called the Three Sisters. These rogue waves are sometimes seen on Lake Superior during foul weather. The following excerpt from my novel describes the phenomenon:

“It’s the Three Sisters that sailors fear most.” Ollie leaned forward for effect. “During big storms, see, the waves hitting Superior’s rocky coasts bounce back into the lake and collide with other swells and it makes for a messy confusion of waves. That’s bad enough. But once in a while, the waves rebounding off the shore combine with the ones headed for it, and that’s when you get the Three Sisters. Most ships survive the first sister—though she’s half again as big as your typical storm wave. The second is bigger still, but a good captain and crew can withstand her. Now it’s the third sister who’s biggest and meanest: Three times the size of your ordinary storm wave, a good fifty feet tall, and she’s the deadliest of all.”

The “Three Sisters” trio of waves is an echo of my novel’s main characters, who themselves are three sisters. In deciding who the sisters would be, it was important to me to write about the storm from different vantage points, and let the story of the storm unfold through each sister’s eyes. The nonfiction books I studied focused on steel freighters that were stranded or foundered in the 1913 gale. One ship had a husband-and-wife, steward-and-cook team. The cook, Sadie Black, was the inspiration for Sunny, one of the sisters.

Also featured in my novel is the U.S. Life-Saving Service, a precursor to the U.S. Coast Guard (which formed in 1915). I read a fascinating book about the service, Wreck Ashore by Frederick Stonehouse, and in doing so I found the inspiration for another sister, Agnes. As for the third sister, Cordelia, I knew all along I wanted her to be the youngest, newly married to a lake freighter captain, seeing everything for the first time.

While the story can be read and enjoyed as an action-adventure tale of how the sisters battle the storm, there’s another story going on—the internal tempest each sister faces in her own life. For these women the storm is a sort of reckoning, wherein they must face certain truths they’ve been avoiding. I continue to be fascinated with themes of independence, of knowing oneself, and of the conflict between the individual and society. These themes inspired the sisters’ personal struggles. Their struggles come to a crisis point during the gale; despite the chaos of the blizzard and the hurricane winds and the mountainous waves, Sunny, Agnes, and Cordelia must confront them once and for all.

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Meet Kinley Bryan

Kinley Bryan is an Ohio native who counts numerous Great Lakes captains among her ancestors. Her great-grandfather Walter Stalker was captain of the four-masted schooner Golden Age, the largest sailing vessel in the world when it launched in 1883. Kinley’s love for the inland seas swelled during the years she spent in an old cottage on Lake Erie. She now lives with her husband and children on the Atlantic Coast, where she prefers not to lose sight of the shore. Sisters of the Sweetwater Fury is her first novel.

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