Reviewed by Frank Pizzoli
Independent Book Review
Gripping WWII fiction with a classic feel
Author John Winn Miller’s experience served him well in writing his first novel The Hunt for the Peggy C. As an award-winning investigative reporter and foreign correspondent, he covered the hijacking of the Achille Lauro, Mafia busts, and numerous terrorist attacks around the Mediterranean region. Journalists’ reporting on events is often referred to as “the first draft of history” and Miller’s experience adds an engaging authenticity to his novel.
He has storytelling in his blood evidenced by the zeal with which he mastered nautical terms. Readers will know what it’s like to be on a tramp steamer or U-boat. His bibliography is a treasure chest full of readable goodies.
Enter the Peggy C’s Captain Jake Rogers, a kid from Baltimore whose love of the seas earned him a coveted scholarship to the US Naval Academy. In the novel, he’s a smuggler who will transport contraband on his tramp steamer for the right price. The kind of cargo other sea captains might refuse or even report to authorities.
Whispers are that Rogers may have killed someone in the US. Some believe this explains why he went out on the high seas which eventually took him to Amsterdam. There he saw firsthand how Germany’s scapegoat—Jews—were dehumanized by being made into “the other,” a step along the way to the Holocaust.
With a penchant for adventure and danger, Rogers agrees to transport a Jewish family hoping to flee Nazi persecution. In the context of those times, that’s dangerous cargo.
As the rescue caper unfolds, Oberleutnant Viktor Brauer, renowned U-boat captain, pur- sues Rogers and his “contraband’ with a focused brutality that’s scary—and gripping—as one reads about the pursuit page by page. Along the way, a ragtag crew dodges mines and torpedoes from Africa to the North Sea, where fewer and fewer commercial ships sail for fear of trigger-happy warriors like Brauer searching for trophies in sunken tonnage littering the ocean’s floor.
Meanwhile, aboard the ship charting out his escape to safety, Captain Rogers witnesses the family’s warmth and intense faith during their unimaginable ordeal. Like a sea captain watches the stars in the sky to make decisions, Rogers can’t help but observe how the family nurtures each other and their faith.
As the book opens, Rogers’ First Mate announces an SOS radio call bringing readers right into the drama of the high seas. Their first impulse is to pray for those aboard a troubled vessel. Miller’s language in this scene and throughout the story display the ease with which he pens memorable language.
He writes about three people rescued: The survivors, in their soaked winter coats and boots, felt like 300-pound halibuts thrashing and fighting every inch of the way. Their rescue ropes tearing “the skin off of their frozen hands.”
Miller’s scenes are so vivid readers will wonder if they are reading a novel or watching a movie. Rogers’ race to safety with this faithful family creates the book’s dramatic, breath-holding tensions.