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Dive Into A Danish Tale Of Seafarers And Dreamers

The "we" in the title of Danish author Carsten Jensen's We, the Drowned, an international bestseller just released in the U.S., is the citizenry of Marstal, a small town on the Danish island of Ærø — where sailing around the world on freighters is the addictive way of life for the men and a torturous waiting game for the wives and mothers they leave behind. Like in any typical small town, the populace of Marstal is concerned, nosy and, above all, patriotic, making it the ideal narrator of this engrossing hundred-year tale.

The story begins in 1848 with the outbreak of the First Schleswig War, a three-year battle between Denmark and Germany. Marstal is thrown into the only naval battle of the conflict, and it's a stalemate at that. But it makes for a dramatic introduction to the charming characters that populate this book. At the center of the action is Laurids Madsen, who, as a father of four, has already spent many years at sea before he is thrown into fiery battle and is traumatized by the experience. When the battle is over, he takes off on what his wife thinks is just another job. He never returns.

Driven by his ineluctable fate as a Marstaller, Madsen's favorite son Albert soon begins his own career as a sailor (happily, because at school he and his friends are tormented by an abusive teacher who fuels their own violent impulses). Albert's journey around the world collecting paychecks and climbing a ship's ranks soon gives way to a search for his father. Spurring him on is a pair of magical boots: The elder Madsen credited the boots with saving his life during the war, and when he leaves them behind before embarking on his latest journey, the son takes it as a sign that his father has hung up his metaphorical boots. Laurids Madsen is declared dead after several years, but Albert senses this was no ordinary sailing job, and that his father is still alive.

For many of the Marstallers, life in the town is about waiting — for a loved one to return, or, in the case of its boys, to be old enough to set sail.

Throughout his exciting and harrowing quest to find his father — and beyond — the boots serve Albert well. By the time he settles into his retirement years back in Marstal, the boots still intact, he has seen much of the world and has a new totem to prove it: the shrunken head of a man alleged to be the explorer James Cook, who was killed in Hawaii following a conflict with the natives. But Albert is lonely. Without any family and plagued by nightly visions of wars to come, he wanders around Marstal looking for friends. Albert's outgoing, almost mayoral devotion to the town leads him to Knud Erik, a young boy who has recently lost his father at sea. Albert entertains Knud Erik with tales of his adventures, and the boy grows up to inherit Albert's passion for the sea, as well as his knack for making unlikely friends.

For the most part, the women of Marstal endure the enterprise that keeps their town running. But one widowed mother, in an attempt to quell her lifelong anxiety, tries to take the future of the town into her own hands. Having inherited a fleet of ships, she lets them bob in the harbor for years, refusing to lease them out, only to watch the men take ferries to Copenhagen and beyond to find work on other ships. Instead of waiting for time to change the town, which it gradually does, this woman wants to force change. But the town's ships always find a way to be useful.

This is where Jensen's "we" narrator comes in handy: For many of the Marstallers, life in the town is about waiting — for a loved one to return, or, in the case of its boys, to be old enough to set sail. What these land-bound citizens do while they wait can be as fascinating and frightening as what the men do at sea. It's thanks to this omniscient narrator, who takes the shape of a young boy, a widow and everyone in between, that we can see Marstal from all sides.

Readers may crave more seafaring action, but being stuck in Marstal's port has some wonderful rewards. In one chapter, Knud Erik and his friends forge the town's two teenage gangs into a single brotherhood called the Albert Gang, in honor of Knud Erik's admirable surrogate father. What this gang does together is a child-size version of life at sea. Looking for treasure, they, like Albert before them, come across a human head floating in the water, and it's an important clue in a subplot that covers half the book. In another episode, the gang leader, Anton, unsuccessfully tries to shoot an apple off another boy's head, which earns him both the nickname William Tell and a prescription for eyeglasses. This last appears to doom Anton to life on land: Without perfect eyesight, he won't make the best sailor. But like any good Marstaller, Anton finds his way onto a ship in the end.

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Liz Colville