DURING the last 25 years of the 19th century, when majestic ships sailed from wealthy Europe to engage in trade with ancient Eastern lands, 1,800 shipwrecks occurred on Australian shores, many near the western coast. Sharp, jagged rocks, oppressive heat, sudden, devastating cyclones, and a lack of white settlements made the sailors' plight in Western Australia formidable.
American writer Gustave Rathe opens his thrilling, absorbing book "The Wreck of the Barque Stefano off the North West Cape of Australia in 1875" with the gloomy comment of a French artist following his survey of the Western Australian coast: "a picture of desolation ... everywhere reigned sterility and death."
Rathe retells the story of his Croatian grandfather, who was an enthusiastic 16-year-old cadet on an Austro-Hungarian sailing vessel - the Stefano. During a howling wind and the pitch darkness of an October night in 1875, the ship struck against submerged rocks, forcing crew members to seek shelter on the shores of Western Australia.
After the sailors experienced months of torment, only Rathe's grandfather, Miho Baccic, and another young sailor, Ivan Jurich, had survived. They were picked up by a pearling ship routinely passing along the coast in April 1876.
Baccic's father later engaged a Jesuit priest to record the two sailors' survival accounts in Italian. "The Wreck of the Barque Stefano" is Rathe's updated version of the English translation made by Baccic's wife in 1920.
The Croatian boy's youthful voice has not been lost among the various versions. In a chatty, conversational style and direct, lucid prose, Rathe begins this historical account with Baccic speaking confidently, attempting to calm his mother's fears over the forthcoming journey.
Most of "The Wreck of the Barque Stefano" deals with the shipmates' struggle for survival. Slowly, one-by-one, they succumb to a growing sense of despair, to starvation, to insanity. Yet, hope, goodness, and salvation exist in the forms of nomadic Aborigines.
After Baccic is stranded on the coast, dark, ominous warnings made by fellow sailors in Croatia ring in his mind, "Beware of the black barbarians - the cannibals!"
During their unceasing pursuit of food and supplies, the Aborigines come across the dying sailors. The Aborigines give them bread and dig water from the ground for them.
Baccic describes his encounters with the indigenous people using religious imagery, calling them a "heavenly vision" and naming one a "black Moses." A tribe later "adopts" Baccic and Jurich.
The relationship between the generous, compassionate Aborigines and the two exhausted Slavic boys forms one of the most interesting parts of the book. Their European knowledge having failed them, the sailors learn the Aborigines' skills and customs, and take part in mysterious, sacred rituals.
The Aborigines are responsible for the two shipmates' rescue, leading them to a site where European boats pass. The sailors board a pearling ship and return to their families in October 1876, a year after the wreck.
An epilogue concludes the book. Having left his sailing career, Baccic settled in New Orleans and became prosperous in the shipping and real-estate trades. Jurich remained in his small village near Bosnia, taking over his family's vineyard.
Rathe combines this sea story with historical details. The book is replete with original, handwritten letters, darkened photographs, yellowed maps, and maritime paintings from the Victorian era.
"The Wreck of the Barque Stefano" will appeal to young adults as well as older readers. It is not "great literature" in the sense of dense writing rich with heavy symbolism and intricate patterns of imagery. But this is irrelevant.
Readers will be impressed by Rathe's attention to historical accuracy and will catch his lively interest in his subject.