Swirling winds, blinding snow, crashing waves slamming into the lakeshore: sounds like the Midwest in winter—nothing to be too concerned about. Unless you’re sailing an enormous vessel loaded with tons of cargo, trapped on one of the Great Lakes during what would be the storm of the century.
Author Michael Schumacher tackles the Great Lakes Hurricane of 1913 in his new book, November’s Fury, a chronicle of the sailors, the vessels, and the controversies of four brutal days a century ago on the country’s largest inland seas.
Schumacher, whose previous titles include Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald and Wreck of the Carl D, has a number of documentaries about the Great Lakes to his credit. The Wisconsin-based author tells the story of the disaster that struck the Great Lakes in November 1913 in November’s Fury, a storm that shifted and swelled and ending up sinking or stranding dozens of vessels and killing hundreds of sailors. November’s Fury is a collection of stories focused on the sailors and vessels trapped in an unexpectedly ferocious storm.
Schumacher breathlessly recounts the drama that unfolded on the lakes as “moderate to brisk” winds shifted into a “moderately severe” storm that swirled into a tempest with winds gusting 60 to 70 miles per hour. Packed with colorful details and scores of illustrations, November’s Fury reveals the little-known history of a tragic event that for months captured the attention—and headlines—of Midwesterners and, indeed, all Americans. Schumacher tells of sailors who valiantly tried to save cargo and vessels in ultimately futile efforts. He tells of boats crashing into rocky shores, of waves overwhelming men and vessels, and of desperate rescue efforts that often ended in tragedies of their own.
Thoroughly researched and well documented, November’s Fury is brought to life through the voices of the men who lived through the storm as well as through news stories of the day. Schumacher goes beyond the headlines, however, to examine the blame game that erupted after the storm as various parties looked to put the responsibility on everyone from maverick ship captains to greedy shipping companies to the nascent U.S. Weather Bureau, which was accused of botching the forecast leading up to the storm. He also looks at the storm’s aftermath, as corpses washed ashore in the days and months following the catastrophe and as efforts were made to recover sunk, stranded, and lost vessels. Geared toward history and maritime buffs, the book’s glossary and appendix of lost and stranded vessels will be of interest to amateur experts and novices alike.
With so many vessels and so many men struggling through a massive storm system that hit so many lakes, November’s Fury covers a lot of ground. Schumacher’s writing is engaging and lively, though sometimes the material feels choppy and disorganized. And, although Schumacher carries the story into the present day with the May 2013 discovery of one of the sunken vessels, the Henry B. Smith, the short book seems to end rather abruptly and would have benefitted from a stronger conclusion.
Although history buffs will love the sharp details that Schumacher brings to November’s Fury, it is in telling the human stories that the author shines. Schumacher does a great service to the memories of those who lived through the storm, sharing in their own words their stories of survival. The book serves as a timely reminder of the capricious whims of Mother Nature—and of our own attempts, often futile, to battle the elements.
November 2013, University of Minnesota Press
$24.95, hardcover, 198 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen