Likely Stories: The Stowaway by Laurie Gwen Shapiro

Mar 15, 2018

  True adventure of a young boy who dreams of accompanying Byrd to Antarctica.

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Laurie Gwen Shapiro is an award-winning documentary film maker and journalist.  The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica is her first full-length work of non-fiction.  Several friends had recommended it to me, and I did not know it was non-fiction until I read the dust jacket.  I do not usually read much non-fiction, but the inside flap intrigued me.

The story revolves around Commander Richard Byrd’s 1928 expedition to Antarctica.  Shapiro opens the story, “With his back against the sunset, a seventeen-year-old boy lingered on the docks along the Hudson River.  By his calculations, it was a ten-minute swim from where he stood to the ship. // The new high school graduate waited, his soft grey eyes fixed on the City of New York, moored and heavily guarded on the Hoboken piers.  The sun went down at six forty-five this day—August 24, 1928—but still he fought back his adrenaline.  He wanted true darkness before carrying out his plan.  At noon the next day, the ship would leave New York Harbor and sail nine thousand miles to the frozen continent of Antarctica, the last frontier on Earth left to explore.  He intended to be aboard” (1). 

While the exhaustive catalogue of thousands upon thousands of tons of provisions piled up—including more than 100 dogs--I was wracked with a mild case of boredom.  I was most bothered by some of the personal details of Billy Gawronski’s senior prom.  However, as I delved into this exciting and suspenseful story, all was forgiven and forgotten.  As a reward, 36 interesting photos accompany the text.  Apparently, stowing away on a ship was pastime which drew a lot of adventurous people to try and join the expedition.

Billy was an adventurer and thrill-seeker of the first order.  He was discovered and returned to shore several times.  His father owned an upholstery shop, and diligently tried to bring his son into the family business.  As a young boy, he went on a sea voyage, and refused to take off his sailing suit.  When asked what he wanted to do with his life, his mother replied, “He wants to be a sailor.” 

Billy also had a heroic side.  When a part of Byrd’s plane fell into a crevasse, “while others held his legs, he slipped into the crack and, dangling ‘got hold of the pedestal, and the airplane sections, and pulled them out” (127).  When a shipmate “fell into the Ross Sea.  Bennie yelled out he could not swim. […] within seconds, Billy dove into the 28-degree water,” and saved the man’s life.  He was so determined to become a member of the expedition, Billy was willing to accept even the worst job on the ship—the stokehold—and he spent months shoveling coal into one of the ships. 

In 1943, Billy was given his first command as one of the youngest captains in World War II.  He closed his career with three decades in the Merchant Marines.  Ironically, as a sailor, he visited every continent except for Antarctica.  Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s The Stowaway, is a suspense filled and compelling story of determination, pluck, and grit to achieve his life-long dream.  5 Stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!