Book covers attract buyers; there is nothing new about this. We can tell a book by its cover, or at least we think we can. Fourteen by Leslie Johansen Nack communicates several ideas all at once. Fourteen, hmmm, that might be the age of the female on the cover. She is wearing a bikini. The next point that catches reader attention is the subtitle: A Daughter’s Memoir of Adventure, Sailing, and Survival. That last word is a trigger that evokes the possibility of domestic child abuse. Then there are the words “adventure” and “sailing.” Not available on Kindle Unlimited but selling for USD 0.55, I was interested in what this novel is about. I was happy. I discovered a story with meaning on many levels.
This is a non-fiction memoir. The author received permission from many characters to use real names. Leslie mentions that some incidents that extended over several months were compressed as far as time is concerned but events are factual. For this review, I can look at the subtitle and address my comments to each element.
The adventure is the idea of a father, Bjorn, and three daughters embarking on an ocean trip from California to Tahiti on a sailing ship. There was a motor for backup, but the entire trip could not have been done with the engine running the entire time. First, it would have taken too much fuel, more than the storage capacity of the boat. Secondly, it would have been too noisy. Leslie mentions the bone-jarring noise which was present at one point when the engine was run for almost four days straight. Therefore, the trip would be primarily under sail. Bjorn was an adventurer; he was not just going from point A, California, to point B, Tahiti. There would be stops at several islands. Having arrived at an endpoint in Tahiti, Bjorn decided he could make some money by getting paid to sail a different boat back to California. From California to Tahiti and back would involve Leslie and Bjorn being mostly at sea for nine months. Yes, there were stops at islands, sometimes for several weeks, but Bjorn seems to have been consumed with the desire to travel, to keep moving. Bjorn and his daughters; Leslie, Karen, and Monica, were at sea on the trip to Tahiti. On the trip back to California, there was Bjorn and Leslie accompanied by two hired male crew and one female hired crewperson who would help Leslie cook, stand watch, and, along with Leslie, help with other tasks required by Bjorn. The adventure was primarily the trip. Where was the three daughters’ mother? Paula could not get along with husband Bjorn and appears at several points in the story. The family was so dysfunctional that Bjorn and daughters were better off without her. But Leslie much preferred a unified family that could get along.
The story of the sailing element was a pleasure to read as far as new information (for me) although some of the storm sequences were terrifying. When is a rope not a rope? (Ans. When it is a line or a sheet). What is a Genoa? (a forward sail). What is a gimbaled stove? (Read the book). The section on navigation in the pre-GPS era (as far as sailboat navigation was concerned) is well presented and a bit technical. This was not left solely to Bjorn. All the daughters were expected to know all the skills of sailing and navigation that would be called upon during the trip. Bjorn made some allowances for Karen, the youngest daughter. But Monica and Leslie were expected to know and employ all skills necessary to cope with any emergency as well as al day-to-day operations. This training was demanding, and Leslie constantly felt her efforts to master skills such as navigation perfectly went mostly unappreciated. Although Monica was older, both other daughters felt Leslie was Bjorn’s favorite. Leslie thought so too and was both frightened and proud of her status. Bjorn demanded the most of Leslie, rarely praised her, and was very quick to criticize her.
Then we come to the story of survival, a story which I believe has three parts. First, are the stories of survival of the ship and crew as they worked through several threatening storms. By descriptions in this story, the storms seem to exceed the capability of the sailboats (there were two). What happens when the ship loses the ability to call for help? In one case, the ship could receive information but, due to a radio fire, they could not transmit. On their second sailboat, the one on which they returned to the US, the boat lost a wind vane close to the beginning of the journey. This served almost like an autopilot. Without it, one member of the crew would have to be physically present at the wheel throughout the journey. This almost doubled the demands on everyone on the boat.
The second story of survival is Leslie’s story. She is the author of this memoir and its narrator. Leslie is very clear about how she is appalled by the abuse that her father, Bjorn, committed. She also loved her father completely and always. In her words “He was completely predictable in his unpredictability. I loved him desperately as any little girl loves her hero father, but I also hated him fiercely and would have done just about anything to get away from him. He was the best and the worst father in the world to me, and that would be a hard fact I’d have to reconcile in the years to come.” (Kindle pg. 350).
The third survival story is one that is not written about so explicitly by Leslie. It is a story that will resonate with expatriate travelers and even some tourists. Leslie writes about dealing with being alone. It is not a story of regret at being alone. Being alone can be good or it can break a person to the point of requiring mental health assistance. I especially liked on method Leslie used to be productive during her “alone” time. She read books, all kinds of books. As I proceed along my travels as a permanent expatriate (not solely on a boat) I found a lot of validation about my ways of coping with the loneliness that happens as a result of language and cultural differences. This is a five-star Amazon read, also a page-turner, and an insight into a European subculture. As a psychological study concentrating on mental survival in a family setting with widely diverging signals as to what is expected, I highly recommend it.