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The Ghost of the Grasshopper:
The Seagirt Saga of Two Families

A New Historical Novel by Tom Hale

Martha's Vineyard Times May 13, 1999

 

Tom Hale, an architect-turned-boatyard owner-turned-maritime historian and writer, at 74 ranks among the elder statesmen of the Vineyard's maritime community. His latest book, The Ghost of the Grasshopper, is a historical novel which tells the story of two families of the sea, one American, one British, who are brought together through a series of coincidences over a period of two hundred years. Each encounter takes place against the backdrop of real events in maritime history. Much of the story also revolves around the quirky challenges that Vineyard Sound offers the uninitiated mariner and the unique history of the Vineyard itself.

In a recent interview at his home in Vineyard Haven, Mr. Hale discussed the writing of The Ghost of the Grasshopper, his personal history, and what he's planning for the future. One entrance to Mr. Hale's home allows the visitor to pass through his workshop, in which work benches are scattered with woodworking tools and ship models in various stages of building and repair. The walls sport pictures of a variety of vessels, large and small. The house, which he shares with his wife Kelsey and an affectionate retriever, is tidy, the walls and shelves tastefully cluttered with ship models, paintings and maritime artifacts.

Grasshopper a Decade in the Writing
"I wrote it first ten years ago, and I've been working on it off and on ever since," Mr. Hale says of the novel. "It was my lovely wife Kelsey who said 'You really ought to do something about this.'"

Mr. Hale had come across a diary and a letter written by his Loyalist ancestor, Mary Almy to her husband who was serving as an officer in the Colonial forces (they had apparently agreed to disagree). Mrs. Almy was holed up in Newport, RI, during the occupation by the British and reported in her 1778 correspondence details of a failed siege on Newport by the French and the Colonists. The novel begins in the same year, but the story is unrelated.

"I started thinking about it and the story just grew," he says. "All of the historical events are entirely factual."

In the story, the Prescotts of Martha's Vineyard and the Thorntons of Plymouth, England, first cross paths when Captain Jethro Prescott is the prisoner of Commander Richard Thornton aboard the fictional H.M. Sloop of War Grasshopper on her ill-fated voyage from Chatham, MA to Newport, RI.
Ancestors of the two men meet again and again over the next two centuries in a series of coincidences which stretch the illusion of realism, but provide the framework in which to examine important events in the history of the sea, some familiar to amateur maritime historians, such as the sinking of the Titanic or the victory of the fabled yacht America at Cowes in 1851. Others are less familiar, such as the compelling account of the defiant scuttling of the interned German war fleet after World War I in the Orkney Islands, or the wreck of the U.S.S Trenton in a cyclone in Samoa in 1889.

Indeed, Mr. Hale does for the reader what any true devotee of maritime history must. He allows us to imagine ourselves dashing and honorable young sailors participating in the most exciting and important events aboard the mightiest ships of the sea. The importance of realism in the story line itself becomes secondary.

The tone of Mr. Hale's novel is refreshing and betrays both a deep respect for fact and the English language, as well as an almost boyish fascination with all things maritime. The language is somewhat old-fashioned (perhaps influenced by all those Hornblower books), and the characters are entirely honorable and polite--a rarity in modern literature.

"A Baked Bean, Born and Bred"
Thomas Hale was born in Newburyport, MA, and later moved with his family to Dedham.

"I'm a baked bean, born and bred," he says. He comes from a long line of Massachusetts boating enthusiasts, and on his father's side, he had an ancestor who made his career in shipping in the East India Trade during the 19th century.

"I learned to sail in the 30s in Buzzards Bay, in South Dartmouth," says Mr. Hale.

In a tour of his home, Mr. Hale points out a tiny model boat at the bottom left of a case containing several models on the wall of the dining room. It is a green, gaff-rigged sloop, about three or four inches long.

"My first model," he says. He was given this 15 ½-foot sloop, along with a Horatio Hornblower book at age 14, and made this model soon after. He still has the sloop and the book.

During World War II, he drove an ambulance for the American Service. He served injured troops from the British 8th army in North Africa, Italy and Germany. About this he would say with a furrowed brow only, "It was quite an experience for a nineteen year-old kid."

After the war, he attended Harvard University where he earned a Master's degree in architecture. He practiced in this profession for about eight years.

"Then I followed my genes and went into the boat business," he says.
From 1959 to 1961, Mr. Hale served as Assistant Curator at Mystic Seaport Museum under then Curator Edouard Stackpole...

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