American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

THE SURVIVOR OF THE EDMUND FITZGERALD* (1985). The second and best known of Canadian* author Joan Skelton (Kurisko)’s (1929- ) three novels, The Survivor of the Edmund Fitzgerald chronicles the short, but significant, friendship between two people who meet in the wilderness north of Lake Superior.

Clara Wheatley, a terminally ill wife and mother, opposes her family’s urgings to continue treatment and isolates herself in a cabin to await death. The journal she writes there, laced with Native American myth and imagery, becomes the text of the novel. She evaluates her life, struggling to derive a personal sense of self-worth. Clara’s process of discovery, marked by feminist insight that comes from negotiating the conflict between pleasing others and fulfilling her own dreams, is accelerated after her realization that she is not alone.

Gene Amort (French for “trouble at death”), a young, talented, and successful artist seeking refuge from fans in a superficial art community, stows away on the Edmund Fitzgerald, once the greatest of Lakes freighters and a symbol in the novel of technology. In a fierce Lake Superior storm, Gene realizes that the boat is sinking and clambers into a lifeboat at the crucial moment. The disaster’s sole survivor, Gene is riddled with guilt as he washes up on the beach near Clara’s cabin.

Befriending each other, they jointly come to an understanding of their own mortality, an awareness of the limits of technology, and a need for closure. Clara helps Gene see that saving himself was an act of heroism, not cowardice. Gene helps the pain-stricken Clara commit her most independent act—suicide—in the seclusion of a nearby inlet. [See also AMERICAN INDIAN LITERATURE OF THE SEA; GREAT LAKES LITERATURE]

Caroline J. McKenzie and Donald P. Curtis